The focus fruit for April is still rhubarb, as it was in March
I have just learned about a fascinating book, Rhubarbaria, by Mary Prior, published in the UK by Prospect Books 2009. (The book is available in the US, both new and used.)
This is the first British book devoted to rhubarb recipes through the ages, from around the world, as well as rhubarb history. Rhubarb was first grown in Mongolia, Siberia and the Himalayan foothills, for the medicinal uses of the root. Gerald’s Herbal of 1597 says that the dried root was imported to Britain for use as a blood purifier. Early culinary uses are as likely to be with fish or meat, as they are for desserts. See March’s recipe idea which combines roasted rhubarb with grilled mackerel.
As a dessert item, rhubarb became a familiar staple after the enslavement of people in the Caribbean on sugar plantations led to cheap sugar, from around 1840. The common or slang name for rhubarb in the US, is pie plant (Merriam-Webster dates this name from 1838). In England, the Victorian royal chef Charles Francatelli, included rhubarb pie in his Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852)
Rhubarb is slug-proof, and resistant to both drought and flooding.
Other small fruits still available in April
Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears are all we are likely to have, apart from buying imports. Remember that vegetables are at least as nutritious as fruit, but simply have fewer sugars. The vitamin C content of green leafy vegetables is as high as oranges.
Other fruit care in April in the mid-Atlantic
Weed and mow aisles between fruit bushes as needed. Provide 1” (2.5cm) of water each week if nature doesn’t. Finish pruning any fruit bushes and canes you haven’t yet dealt with.
Pinch flowers off any new spring-planted strawberries. (If you planted in the fall, your plants should have big enough roots to support a harvest without stunting the plants for the second year.) Cover strawberries if frost threatens after flowering has started.
We used to have a coordinated plan of rowcover use that minimized rolling up and storing rowcovers, only to need them again soon after. We would move the rowcovers and sticks from overwintered or spring planted spinach directly to the strawberry beds before flowering. By that point, the cold-hardy spinach was better off without rowcover. We would already have moved rowcover from turnips, senposai, and early cabbage as needed for broccoli, until the end of April, when the broccoli would have hardened off and benefit more from ambient temperatures. By that point, the watermelons needed rowcover. In mid-April we would take rowcover from kale, collards, and early lettuce for the frost-tender crops.
Thin raspberries to six canes per foot (30 cm) of row. For beds wider than 1 row, thin to 2” (5 cm) apart.
If you care about large grapes, it is time to thin the fruitlets in the bunches, we grow mostly Concord types, which make delicious juice (especially after storing a few months to mature). We don’t thin at all.
We are still in the dormant period for most fruits, but in March, we get to appreciate and enjoy rhubarb! In case you didn’t already know, RHUBARB LEAVES ARE POISONOUS – don’t eat them!
I have a funny story related to this (no one died): One year a novice cook baked us a fine looking pie. She scrupulously cut off every scrap of leaf and put it in the compost bucket. She chopped the stems, added plenty of sugar, and baked the pie. The gardeners among the diners were surprised to get a rhubarb pie so late in the spring. Ah! She had used Ruby chard (sometimes even called Rhubarb chard). The pie was OK, but we were sad not to get to eat he leaves! The non-gardeners ate the pie and found nothing odd about it.
Rhubarb is the Focus Fruit for March: Weed, compost around the plants, or where you think the plants are! Mulch if not already done in the fall. Divide & replant if needed.
The information below first appeared in an article I wrote for Growing for Market magazine in October 2009. I have revised it slightly for this post.
This is a good time of year to plan and make preparations for planting new perennial crops. As well as the better known fruits, options include rhubarb, (also known as pie plant), and asparagus. Both are early harvesting crops, so can provide fresh crops to start your CSA season, or enhance your market booth or your offerings for restaurants. Rhubarb can also be used in jam-making, for growers looking for value-added products to extend the market season. Rhubarb is better known among older people, so supplying recipe cards and samples of baked goods or jam may be a good idea to help boost sales. As rhubarb is very tart and rarely eaten raw, you cannot offer raw samples. It needs cooking to bring out the aromatic mellow flavor.
Rhubarb will be in the ground for up to 20 years, so it is important to incorporate it into your field plans after a bit of long-term thinking. This article covers what you need to know to establish the crops, including a look ahead to what you might expect in the future.
Crop Requirements of Rhubarb
Rhubarb appreciates deep soil with high organic matter, and as with all long term crops, it pays to remove perennial weeds before planting. Moderate to high levels of phosphorus and potassium are desirable, and a pH of 6.2-6.8. This is a very easy care crop, with few pests or diseases, requiring little attention.
Rhubarb is a cool climate crop – the north of England is “Rhubarb Central” – the area where rhubarb grows best. I have visited the UK National Rhubarb Collection within Harlow Carr Gardens , near Harrogate in Yorkshire. It’s a collection of different rhubarb varieties, a kind of growing gene bank. Rhubarb does require a winter chill period to break the heat-induced dormancy and start spring growth. Varieties vary in their chill requirements, from about 500 hours at between 28°F (-2°C) and 49°F (9°C). We successfully grow rhubarb in central Virginia, USDA cold hardiness zone 7 and also National Horticultural Society zone 7 for summer temperatures. I was told by a plant nursery in Tennessee that rhubarb would not grow in such a warm place, but our experience says otherwise. Ideal summer temperatures for this crop average around 75°F (24°C). Our summer temperatures include many days above 90°F (32°C). To protect the rhubarb from the heat, we planted it in a single north-south row, directly west of our asparagus and east of our grapevines. In summer it is shaded on both sides. Choose a microclimate to protect from extreme temperatures, and from drying out. It is hardy down to –20°F (-29°C). Early season open sun exposure is valuable.
Ensure a good regular supply of water from spring when growth starts, until fall frosts. On the other hand, avoid water-logged sites, as Crown Rot is one of the few diseases rhubarb can suffer from. Very sandy soils aren’t good for rhubarb, unless you can make heavy additions of organic matter. To test drainage at a potential site, dig a 12” (30 cm) hole, fill with water. If the water has all percolated within 3 hours the site is suitable.
Choosing Rhubarb Varieties and Buying Plants
Although rhubarb can be grown from seed, it is much more usually grown from “crowns” (young plants), or from pieces of crowns divided from established plants. Plants started from seed will be two years old before harvest can start. Our plants at Twin Oaks are of unknown parentage, having been divided and moved around the farm a few times. Many people don’t even realize that rhubarb has distinct varieties, and many nurseries only offer one or two. Growers may wish to select either red or green stalks (green can be more flavorful), yield, disease resistance or winter chilling requirement. Try to get recommendations from other local growers, or buy several and see which does best. Here’s some information I’ve found, although there may be duplication of names for the same variety:
Macdonald: pinky-red, thin tender, upright stalks, some resistance to crown rot.
Victoria: green tall stalks, good vigor, tart flavor, makes many seed stalks.
Tilden: Good red color, thick stalks.
Valentine: Good red color, medium vigor, few seed stalks.
Crimson: Thick red stalks.
Canada Red: for cooler regions. Red stalks, high in sugars.
Red Cherry: for low winter chill areas. Grown in California.
Once you have some established rhubarb it is very easy to propagate and have more. The roots of rhubarb become enormous, and even small broken pieces will grow. To divide the crowns, use a sharp shovel or spade to chop through an unearthed crown, creating pieces with 2 or 3 buds on each. This can be done very early in the spring, before growth has started, or late in the fall. If fall is the recommended time for planting other fruits in your area, it will also work as a time for dividing rhubarb. After dividing, let the cut surfaces air dry for a day or two before replanting.
It is generally recommended to renovate rhubarb plantings every 5-10 years, by digging up and dividing the roots. This gives the opportunity to move or to increase the planting. If your stalks have become thin, brittle and hollow, it’s time to divide and renovate your planting.
Plant in very early spring (or late fall). If you buy crowns and cannot plant them when they arrive, store them in a refrigerator, and check to prevent mold growing during storage. After preparing your site and removing perennial weeds, incorporate about 15 tons of compost per acre (34 metric ton per hectare). On a smaller scale, this translates to one or two shovelfuls of compost per plant. Crowns should be planted 2-3 ft (0.6-1 m) apart, with the bud about an inch (2.5 cm) below the soil surface. Make trenches or holes 6” (15 cm) deep. Fill in the holes or trenches, pack firmly (except directly over the bud), and water well. For multiple rows, space the rows 3-4ft (1 m or so) apart. Rhubarb is a large plant and will easily use this amount of space. To combat over-wet soils, use raised beds. Organic mulch will help prevent weeds and keep the soil cool and moist.
Rhubarb grows actively in the spring, and then in most climates, goes dormant for the summer. Once fall frosts arrive, the leaves and stems will die back to the ground and you can do the annual maintenance.
Give an annual application of compost in the fall when the plant goes dormant, and mulch around the plants with straw or spoiled hay. In early spring come back to your plants, weed, and add more mulch and perhaps more compost if needed as soon as you see the big pink buds emerging from the soil. Provide 1-2” (0.5-1 cm) of water per week.
The warmer your climate, the more flower stalks you will see. Unlike the squarish leaf stalks, flower stalks are round. They quickly grow tall, above the leaves, and have big buds at the top. For maximum rhubarb yield, remove these flower stems as soon as you see them, by cutting them low down, or at least by cutting off the flower buds as you go by. We harvest stalks twice a week in April and May, and cut the flower stems out at the same time.
In the Rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire, England, there are farms with dark forcing sheds, where pale pink rhubarb grows. It is harvested by candlelight. Click the link for the audio slideshow.
Rhubarb emerges from hibernation once temperatures have reached the upper 40°F (5°C) range for several weeks. Do not harvest stalks the first year after planting, as it is important to help the plant get well established.
Most people harvest by grasping a thick stem near the base, and twisting and pulling. We like to pull 1/3 of the stalks available and leave at least 2/3 of them growing, but with big plants you can remove half of the stalks, provided you leave at least 10 stalks per plant. I believe it is possible to cut all the stems at ground level, if you have a big commercial planting and need a fast harvesting technique. This may only apply to those growing rhubarb as an annual, setting new plants each year.
The leaves (and any frosted stalks) of rhubarb are poisonous, as noted above. This is due to the presence of oxalic acid, so play it safe and cut the leaves off in the field, bringing only the stalks to the shed. We like to stand the stalks upright in buckets and add an inch (2.5 cm) of water to keep them crisp.
As well as the 6-8 weeks of spring harvest, it is also possible to take one or two harvests in September, in most regions. Some people “force” rhubarb for an earlier spring yield, using rowcovers or field houses, or digging up the roots in late fall and replanting them in a heated greenhouse. Forced plants can be harvested twice a week for 4-6 weeks, but then they are fairly exhausted.
A respectable yield is 2-3 pounds (1-1.5 k) of stalks per mature plant per year, or 15 tons per acre (34 metric tons per hectare).
It’s not just pies and crumbles (similar to cobblers). I recently saw a recipe for mackerel with rhubarb. Roasted rhubarb, topped with mackerel fillets, broiled (that’s “Grilled” in the UK), and served with watercress. Back in the dessert realm there are cold summer dishes like rhubarb fool, a kind of fluffy soufflé.
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Other small fruits still available in March
Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears are all we are likely to have, apart from buying imports. Remember that vegetables are at least as nutritious as fruit, but simply have fewer sugars. The vitamin C content of green leafy vegetables is as good as oranges. Even potatoes have a fair amount of vitamin C, as Carol Deppe points out in a very interesting article The 20 Potato a Day Diet versus the Nearly All Potato Winter about the nutritional and gastronomic wonders of potatoes. It will inspire you to grow and eat more potatoes! (if you can find it. I can’t now.) Try https://www.resilience.org/resilience-author/carol-deppe/
The vitamin C is concentrated just under the skin, so hopefully you have grown organic potatoes and will eat the skins too.
Other fruit care in March in the mid-Atlantic
Complete any weeding, fertilizing, mulching, and planting new plants early in March! Mow aisles (a regular task from now on.)
Blueberries: Plant new bushes now, before buds break. Weed, and restore mulch if it is thin. Set up irrigation – we’ve often been surprised how early in the year we need to start irrigating.
Summer-fruiting raspberries: Mulch, water. Weed shallowly. Set up ropes or wires to hold the canes in check.
Fall raspberries: Weed and water all raspberries. Plant new canes if needed, keep the roots damp during planting. Once the beds are all prepared, go ahead and set T-posts and ropes or wires to corral the newly emerging canes. We like to use T-pots so we can remove them at the end of the season and mow right over the beds. Fall raspberries start from scratch growing new canes each year. It’s a great help with weeding!
Strawberries: Weed this month, before the winter annual weeds seed all over the place. Water new beds if they need it. Get rowcover out once you see flowers. That’s not till April here, but if you are in a warmer climate you need to know to cover any flowers on frosty nights. The leaves will be fine, so if your rowcover is skimpy, it’s OK if leaves are exposed for the night. Keep deer off (electric fence?) Set up drip irrigation and water twice a week from now till November, unless it rains enough. Top up wood chip path mulch. Fill any gaps using runners.
Grapes: Mow if needed. Water if there is a spring drought. Weed, top up mulch if needed. This is the last chance this year to plant new vines. Prune them after planting, and tie them to a sturdy cane or the low wire of the trellis. If using the Geneva Double Curtain method, note that vines are trained to alternate sides of the bottom wire and then to alternate sides of top wires, where they will have space to spread.
Random fruits: Depending on your climate, you could still plant new fruit bushes and canes, and there may still be pruning to take care of. This is a good time to repair or replace broken support frameworks.
Blueberries are easy to grow if conditions are right. They are a popular choice with organic growers, because they don’t need any pesticides to produce a good crop. They do, however, need annual pruning to be sure of a high quality crop. Pruning also keeps the bushes at a height easy to harvest from. Pruning is done during the dormant season, usually between December-early March in the Piedmont.
Some people are reluctant to prune because it does remove some of the flower buds and reduces berry production for that year, but if pruning is not carried out, berries become smaller each year and the health of the bushes declines. Pruning is an investment in the long-term success of your plants!
The Growing Small Farms website links to many how-to videos and fact sheets, with diagrams and photos. There are excellent resources on pruning and blueberry production in general. Everything you need to know about pruning blueberry bushes!
Another good resource is this article in the Agricultural Research Service newsletter
“We focus on improving the shelf life of fruit so that it reaches consumers with consistently better texture and flavor,” said Claire Luby, plant geneticist with HCPGIR. Perhaps a large challenge for Luby and her colleagues is developing a cultivar that is resistant to a disease known to be a scourge of the berry: blueberry shock virus.
“We’re studying diverse blueberry plants to understand the genetic basis for blueberry shock virus, which can significantly impact yields for farmers,” she said. “Our hope is to use the insights from this project to develop new cultivars that are resistant, or at least more tolerant to, the disease.” Blueberry shock virus has caused annual crop losses of 34-90% in the Pacific Northwest.
Researchers combine traditional plant breeding with genomics to create their disease-resistant cultivars. The traditional technique (used in one form or another by people trying to improve agricultural crops for millennia) is to take pollen from one plant and use it to pollinate a different plant with complementary characteristics. They study the progeny of these crosses, looking for new characteristics that meet the goals of the breeding programs. Traditional blueberry breeding can take more than 20 years from the time an initial cross is made to when a consumer might eat from a resulting cultivar.
“We try to improve the accuracy and speed of the plant breeding process,” Luby explained. “We are now able to obtain a lot more genetic information about the plants and we can use that information to potentially predict whether an offspring of a given cross might have the characteristics we are looking for before we plant it out in the field. This is important because it can increase the speed of the plant breeding process.”
“Our goals are to develop blueberries that require fewer chemical inputs to fight disease, which can be better for both the environment and for growers’ bottom lines,” Luby said.
The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in U.S. agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.
Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production
At the in-person Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference, I gave two presentations. I also sent a recorded workshop for their virtual conference in January. That one was Feeding the Soil. I’ve just scoured through all 8 pages on my website that check the category “Slideshows”. I found Feeding the Soil twice.
My Alliums Year Roundpresentation is new this year and I posted the handoutafter my presentation at VABF. Pasa had shorter workshops, so I pruned the slideshow, but left the handout with the “bonus material”.
My other presentation at Pasa was Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production. That is one of the very first topics I tackled when I started out as a speaker, so the three versions on this website span the past ten years. 2014, 2016, 2019. Here is the 90 minute 2023 version and ts handout:
We are in the dormant period for most fruits, with really none to harvest, although this is a good month to eat stored and preserved fruit.
Depending on your climate, you could start to plant new fruit bushes and canes, and whether you do that or not, there is plenty to prune and care for.
Blueberries are the Focus Fruit for February
Blueberries were also the Focus Fruit for June, when I wrote about harvesting them, and about the differences between Rabbiteyes, Northern Highbush and Southern Highbush types, and about planting. If you are about to buy plants, let me remind you that we have bought good plants from Finch Blueberry Nursery in Bailey, North Carolina, as well as from a more local source in SW Virginia (now retired). If you only want a few plants, buy potted blueberry plants locally. Otherwise, order bareroot plants shipped to you. In Virginia Edible Landscaping offers a wide choice.
It used to be a tradition here, that the first garden shift of the year, in late January or early February, after the winter break, was spent pruning blueberries. During December and January, only a few people were working in the gardens, harvesting hardy crops, and tending to the hoophouse and greenhouse. Once the rest of the crew returned, we cleaned, sharpened and oiled the pruners, and set to work.
We have two patches of blueberries, both Highbush, despite being in a climate where you might expect Rabbiteyes to do better. The older patch has four rows of eleven bushes, which have been growing there since before 2007. Mostly we don’t know the names of these varieties. We have replanted to fill gaps over the years, and each spring we have logged how they are doing, whether they are early or late, productive or not, small or large berries, delicious or OK.
The newer patch was planted in November 2007, with 4 plants each of five varieties, planted in two rows in the order we expected them to ripen: first Duke, then Spartan, Bluecrop, Chandler and Aurora. The Duke variety has by far been the best, both productive and tasty. The Spartan early on declared itself to not be suited to our location. We have digital records of this patch from 2016-2019. Probably we have paper records from 2007-2015. At the last count, we had 4 Duke, 1 Spartan, 6 Bluecrop, 3 Chandler and 6 Aurora. We have propagated Duke to replace casualties in the old patch.
If you are looking for good varieties for central Virginia, here’s what I gleaned from our notes:
Duke: Good strong, productive plants
Spartan: Not right for this area, didn’t thrive
Bluecrop: Did well initially, started to die out by 2016
Chandler: maybe earlier than Bluecrop, large berries.
Aurora: Very late, large berries, so-so flavor.
Blueberry Plan/Annual Calendar
Late January/February in a mild spell: Pruning (See Special Topic below)
Late January/early February:
Add soil amendments such as sulfur, if soil test indicates a need.
Renew mulch: Rake remains of old mulch aside first. Double cardboard, then replace old woodchips and top up to 3” with new woodchips or sawdust. The new patch had landscape fabric underneath at first, but that was removed, so it now needs double cardboard and new chips, just like the old patch.
Plant new bushes to replace casualties.
Repair fencing if needed.
Early Spring (April? March if there’s a drought):
Check irrigation and start irrigating twice a week. Weed.
Late Spring (May):
Old patch – tackle Nut Sedge by several repeated cultivations with rakes or hoes when nut sedge is 3-4” tall.
When flowers are setting fruit, install the roof netting.
Weed. After harvest, remove and store the roof netting, check perimeter fencing.
Prepare new area if needed. Plant new bushes in November (or wait till Feb)
Weed, spread compost, mulch, take soil tests.
Special Topic for February: Prune Blueberries
Late January/February in a mild spell:
1-2 year old bushes: remove all flower buds (the plump round ones). Remove tiny weak shoots and leave a sturdy bush.
General, all ages: Remove all dead, diseased, damaged and dying wood.
Decide whether to propagate. To layer a low-lying branch, scrape the bark on the underside, pin it down to the ground with a 6” wire staple, weight the pin down, and flag it. Layering has been much more successful for us, but it is possible to make hardwood cuttings, with 3-5 buds hardwood sticks (not flowering tips), and root these.
Remove cross-overs, low-lying branches, branches heading for the center of the bush, branches hitting the roof of the netting.
For young bushes, up to 4-years old, that’s all the pruning you do. Aim to leave a sturdy, healthy bush. Focus on removing spindly stuff. For older bushes, continue with step 5 onwards.
Count the thick old trunks bigger than 1.5” diameter, divide by 5 and saw out this many, at ground level, (unless it would leave fewer than 6). Choose the oldest, scaliest, darkest ones for removal.
Remove any spindly growth, tangled clusters.
Remove a portion of the younger stems, to leave a balance. The ideal is something like 20% less than 1” diameter, 60% 1-2”, 20% larger than 2” diameter.
Bear in mind that the fruit buds are plump – don’t remove more than 50% in total, but don’t fret about removing up to this number. If the bush carries too much fruit, berries will be small, branches break and bush reserves get depleted.
“Until the end of the third growing season, pruning consists mainly of the removal of low spreading canes, and dead and broken branches. As the bushes come into bearing, regular annual pruning will be necessary. This may be done any time from leaf fall until before growth begins in the spring. A mature blueberry plant should produce three to five new canes per year.
During pruning, clean out old, dead wood, and keep the three best 1-year-old canes. Locate the oldest canes and prune out one of every six existing canes; cut as close to the ground as possible. A mature blueberry bush should have 10 to 15 canes: two to three canes each of 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old canes (fig. 3).”
Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears come into their own this month. Pawpaws can be eaten frozen like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws, or you may get Tummy Trouble.
Wintergreen berries persist on the plants in the wild all winter, but don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so do a taste-test before harvesting lots. If you are allergic to aspirin, avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.
Other fruit care in February in the mid-Atlantic
Summer-fruiting raspberries: cut out old canes (last year’s fruiting canes), Thin new canes (that didn’t bear fruit last year) to 6 per foot of row (ie at least 2” apart). Weed. Water.
Fall raspberries: Prepare future new beds. Plant new canes with compost. Mulch around them. Set new T-posts for trellising once the new canes start growing. In existing beds, cut all last year’s canes to the ground and dig up canes from aisles. Weed, compost, mulch.
Strawberries: Remove any winter hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Plant a new replacement bed if not done in August or September. Restore paths if needed. Weed. Compost if none in August. You could keep the rowcover handy for the flowering period, to cover in frosty weather. Or you could pack it away while you tidy up the beds and paths, and get it out again once you see flowers.
Rhubarb: Weed, compost around the plants, or where you think the plants are! Mulch if not already done in the fall
Grapes: Weed. Spread compost. Install irrigation. Prune: 50 buds per vine. Prepare sites for new vines.
We are in the dormant period for most fruits, meaning few-to-none to harvest, none to plant, but plenty to prune and care for, and new plantings to plan for the new season.
Grapes are the focus fruit for January
Grapes also featured as the focus fruit in August. Then I said:
“We grow Labrusca grapes, mainly Concord, with a few Allred, with a selection of other varieties that we are trialing, including the Planets (Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, Venus) and Edelweiss, Fredonia, Marquis, Niagara, Reliance, Sheridan, Steuben, Vanessa. All these are suitable for juice, jam and jelly. Fredonia, Marquis, Mars, Niagara, Reliance, Steuben, Vanessa and Venus are dessert quality, but mostly they have thick skins, big seeds, and a sour taste. Some of these varieties are susceptible to Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and/or Black Rot, and I wouldn’t buy those again. Likewise, I would not buy grafted vines, such as the Cynthiana and Niagara, as we are not good at remembering to cover and uncover the graft unions when the seasons change.”
In January, we check and repair the drip irrigation, update maps and logs. We kept good records for a number of years after we planted the new trial varieties (2008, I think).
It is possible to take dormant wood cuttings, 6-9” (15-23cm) long, cut at the top 1” (2.5cm) above a bud at a slope. Heel them in, and label clearly.
Weed the rows, particularly around new vines, as soon as weeds start to grow. Finish cardboard and sawdust mulch if not done in December.
Grape planting and pruning doesn’t happen here till early March. Avoid pruning grapes in a spell of cold weather, as it can cause vines to die back from the pruning cuts. Vines pruned after the buds start to swell will leaf out a little later, and may avoid late frosts. If the first set of flower buds get frosted, the grapes will produce a second set. Harvest will then be about three weeks later than it might have been.
If your grape rows have developed gaps, layering branches of neighboring vines is a very effective gap-filling method. Lay a vine lateral with several buds down into a 5” (12cm) deep trench. Cover the vine with 3” (7.5cm) of soil, leaving the tip above the surface. When new growth starts to appear, fill the trench and pack firmly. Separate the plants the following fall. Layering can also be done in the fall.
Special Topic for January:Grape Varieties for Organic Production in the Southeast
The Cornell 2022 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Grapes2022-org-grapes-NYSIPM.pdf is a great resource. It covers site selection, variety selection, nutrient requirements, soil health, pre-planting and under-vine cover crops, integrated pest management, and more in its 90 pages. Be aware that it is written with the Northeast in mind. For a more general approach, see Grapes: Organic Production. ATTRA, Rex Dufour.
Other small fruits still available in January
You may have dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears. Pawpaws can be eaten frozen like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws.
Wintergreen berries persist on the plants in the wild all winter, and become sweeter after some cold weather. They don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so harvest while they are good eating. If you are allergic to aspirin, avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.
Medlars are a peculiar ancient old-world fruit, with not much modern-day interest. The fruits are not edible until “bletted” by a hard frost or by waiting beyond normal ripeness, when they get very close to rotting. The small trees have beautiful spring blossoms, and if you don’t harvest the fruit, they remain on the twigs during the winter, giving added interest then. They can also be eaten frozen during winter walks through the orchard.
Other fruit care in January in the mid-Atlantic
Summer-fruiting raspberries: Weed and mulch. Give compost now or in February.
Fall raspberries: cut canes to ground and dig up canes from aisles. Weed.
Strawberries: In colder areas, you may have covered them with hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Weight down the edges with sticks, rocks or sandbags.
Blueberries: Weed and spread compost around the bushes, out to the dripline. Give soil amendments in line with soil test results – blueberries thrive on acid soil, so you may need to add sulfur pellets. After adding all amendments, renew cardboard and sawdust/other mulch if not done in fall. In late January, we prune and propagate by layering, which is the easiest way to successfully propagate blueberries.
Rhubarb: Weed, compost around the plants, or where you think the plants are! Mulch if not already done in the fall
Read books: See my reviews of Levy and Serrano Cold-hardy fruit and nuts, and Blake Cothron’s Berry Grower. The RHS recommends Harvesting and storing garden fruitby Raymond Bush (Faber and Faber 1947, ISBN 54053000473672). Plan more fruit and place orders for delivery after the coldest part of winter. In milder areas, start planting at the end of January
We’re back in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in the Mid-Atlantic and other places with a similar climate. We are in the dormant period for most fruits, meaning fewer to harvest, none to plant, but still plenty to prune and care for, and new plantings to plan for next year. I give links to some useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
Quinces are the focus fruit for December
Quinces are large yellow aromatic fruits like fuzzy apples, growing on large shrubs. They are ripe when the fruit are golden-yellow and have a good smell. I was taught to wait until they develop a split from top to bottom. They are usually cooked, rarely eaten raw. The easiest way I know to cook them is to bake them whole, until the flesh is soft. This does take a while, but is almost no work. They make delicious jellies and fruit butters.
The UK Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has great info. This thorough website includes a monthly calendar of activities, written for the United Kingdom, where quinces are harvested from September. For comparison when reading British websites, the UK fits in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 9. (Remember this scale refers to winter temperatures only, not summers!) The coastal areas are zone 9, most of southern England is zone 8, northern England zone 7 and the central Scottish Highlands are zone 6.
Reasons to grow quince
Quince trees are easy-care, not prone to many peat or disease problems. As well as being productive, they have attractive blossoms in late spring. There are options for spaces of all sizes, and can even be grown in large pots if necessary.
Start harvesting quince fruits in October or November, when they have turned from light yellow to golden yellow and are very aromatic. Leave them on the tree as long as possible to develop their flavor, provided there is no danger of frost. Use pruners to cut fruit from the tree with an inch or two (2-5 centimeters) of stem attached. Handle ripe quinces gently – they are hard but do bruise easily.
Storage of quinces
Only store undamaged fruits. Store quinces in a cool, dry, dark place in shallow trays. Make sure the fruits don’t touch, and don’t wrap them at all. Allow the quinces to mature for 6-8 weeks before cooking. You may want to keep quinces away from apples and pears as the aroma can spread to other fruits. See the Special Topic for December below.
Quince fruit storage problems
Fruit in storage needs to be monitored for rots and disorders. Fungal diseases usually attack damaged fruit and are worse in poor ventilation. Clean your storage spaces and containers thoroughly each summer to reduce the risk of brown rot.
Discoloration is not always caused by rots; some disorders appear in storage too.
Scald: Dark blotches resulting from gases emitted from the fruit.
Bitter pit: dry, brown sunken spots which appear during storage. Like water core, it is related to insufficient calcium during growth.
Core flush (pink or brown flesh around the core): usually the result of carbon dioxide build-up, if ventilation is poor (common in apples stored in plastic bags).
Water core: a disorder giving flesh a glassy appearance. It is caused by sap accumulating in the gaps between the fruit cells. It may disappear during storage, or it may get worse, leading to browning and the breakdown of flesh.
Internal browning: Pears and quinces are prone to this disorder that is found at harvest time or may develop during storage. It can be caused by environmental conditions during fruit development, poor storage conditions or internal rots.
Shriveling: caused by high temperatures or a lack of humidity, or both. If necessary, damp down the floor occasionally to maintain a moist atmosphere, or lay damp burlap over the fruit.
Choosing quince trees
Quince trees (Cydonia oblonga) come in many shapes and sizes, to suit all gardens. You can buy large spreading trees for attractive specimen trees in an open space, or half standards that suit smaller gardens. Compact forms grow well in large containers. An 18in (45cm) container is the smallest feasible, and 2ft (60cm) would be best. To keep quince bushes small, prune the top and roots each winter.
Quince trees reach a height and spread of 12–16ft (3.75–5m), depending on the rootstock, site, and soil type. Quince trees can be bought as grafted plants, on ‘Quince A’ (semi-dwarfing) or ‘Quince C’ (dwarfing) rootstock, or on their own roots, and are best bought as two-year-old trees with the first branches already formed.
Quince trees do not need a second tree to pollinate them. They are self-fertile and usually start bearing fruit when 3-6 years old.
Serbian Gold is a very good cropping quince with a good resistance to leaf blight. The fruits can be large and often apple shaped.
Champion is greenish-yellow, with tender flesh and a delicate flavor.
Cooke’s Jumbo is a large, yellowish-green fruit with white flesh, 6-8” (15-20cm) in diameter.
Orange, and Apple both have orange-yellow flesh, smooth golden skin and rich flavor, with high aroma.
Pineapple has white flesh and smooth yellow skin and a slight pineapple flavor.
Smyrna has large fruit with light yellow flesh and tender lemon-yellow skin.
Consult your Extension Service and local plant nurseries for which kinds do best in your area. Prices can vary widely, and quality may vary too. The Harvest to Table site has good variety descriptions.
Quinces are often confused with the shrub Chaenomeles (Japanese quince), the fruit of which is also edible (but small).
Where to plant quinces
Quinces tolerate a range of soils, but do best in a deep, fertile, moisture-retaining soil. They grow well when near ponds and streams, but will not do well if waterlogged. Add plenty of organic matter to light or shallow chalky soils before planting and mulch well afterwards.
Although hardy, quinces need a warm, sunny, sheltered spot, as the flowers open early and are susceptible to frost, and also, good sun exposure is needed for the fruit to ripen. Avoid planting in frost-pockets. In zones 8-9 they can be grown in the open. But further north or in colder or exposed sites, they are best planted in a sheltered spot, such as against a south- or south-west-facing wall.
How to plant quinces
Plant quince trees between November and March, while they are dormant. If planting more than one, bush trees should be spaced about 12ft (3.5m) apart, and half-standards about 15ft (4.5m) apart. Stake the trees for the first 3-4 years. See the RHS step-by-step guides for full planting details.
Care of quince trees
Quinces flower early in the year, so if frost is forecast during bloom, protect the blossom on smaller trees with rowcover or burlap, removing it during the day to allow pollinating insects access to the flowers.
Feed quinces in early spring before growth starts. Avoid overfeeding if fire blight can be a problem in your area, as lush new leafy growth is susceptible to this bacterial disease, Erwinia amylovora.
Propagation of quince trees
There are several methods of propagating quince, including budding (chip and T-budding), grafting, hardwood cuttings and layering of low branches, and by removing suckers. Root cuttings are also possible for ungrafted trees.
Pruning quince trees
Quinces fruit mostly on the tips of the shoots that grew the previous year, with few fruiting spurs. Prune quinces in winter during dormancy. Remove dead, diseased, dying or damaged branches, and any congested or spindly ones. Maintain well-spaced branches on a single stem, removing surplus branches as they grow. Once established, only light pruning is needed, apart from the removal of any crowded or low branches. The branch framework should be along the same lines as for tip-bearing apple trees.
For good crops, prune every winter, thinning out to improve light and air reaching the center. Remove no more than a quarter of the oldest branches, cutting back to the point of origin or to a shoot that is one-third of the diameter of the branch being removed. Prune out crowded branches, very vigorous shoots and spindly branches. If side shoots are less than 9” (23 cm) long, they can be left unpruned to bear flowers and fruit at the end of the growth the next season. Longer side shoots should be pruned back to about 6” (15 cm) long. Head back drooping and leggy branches. Remove any suckers around the base, and prune off any unwanted shoots on the main stem.
Black knots on branches and trunks are natural and should not be removed.
Quince fruits are not usually thinned unless there is an over-heavy crop that threatens to break the branches.
Common problems of quince trees
Many of the insect pests that attack apples and pears, including codling moth and winter moth caterpillars, also attack quinces, but rarely cause serious problems.
The caterpillar of the codling moth can burrow into quinces in summer, leaving fruit ridden with tunnels and frass. You can hang pheromone traps in the branches of trees in May to lure and trap the male moths, disrupting mating. You can spray a biological control on the fruit and the soil around the trees in the fall to kill caterpillars leaving the fruit.
Fire blight is a serious bacterial disease that infects plants through their flowers. It is spread by splashing of rain or irrigation water. Cut out infected shoots (with a margin for safety) and burn them or put them in the trash.
Brown rot is a fungal disease causing fruit to brown and rot in patches. Attacks are worse in wet weather. Remove and destroy all infected fruit, and prune out branches that have become infected.
Powdery mildew is another fungal disease. It shows as a white powdery coating on the leaves. Remove and destroy infected leaves. Milk sprays can be effective.
Quince Leaf Blight. Photo UK RHS
Quince leaf blight is a fungal leaf spot disease, showing as red-brown spots on leaves which then wither and die. Fruit may be spotted and distorted. Prune out affected leaves and stems and destroy them.
Rake up and dispose of affected leaves in the fall to prevent the disease overwintering. Prune out any dead shoots in the dormant season. Feed and water plants well to encourage more leaf growth.
Rots may develop where fruit cracks or splits if a drought period is followed by heavy rain.
This information comes from Harvest to Table and the UK RHS, who have good photos of quince problems and suggestions on what to do.
Other small fruits still available in December
Persimmons – we have a banner year!
Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves.
Stored apples and pears.
Wintergreen is a frequently overlooked native wild fruit. The tiny berries often persist through the winter (I guess they’re not too popular with wildlife. . .)
Frozen medlars can be eaten when picked from the tree
Other fruit care in December in the mid-Atlantic
Cut fall raspberry canes to the ground after the leaves have dropped. Weed raspberries.
In colder areas, you may cover strawberries with hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Weight down the edges with sticks, rocks or sandbags.
Read books: See my reviews of Levy and Serrano Cold-hardy fruit and nuts, and Blake Cothron’s Berry Grower. The RHS recommends Harvesting and storing garden fruit by Raymond Bush (Faber and Faber 1947, ISBN 54053000473672). Plan more fruit and place orders for delivery after the coldest part of winter.
Special Topic for December: Fruit storage
If handled carefully and stored in suitable conditions, fruit from your garden will store for weeks, or even months.
For comparison with other stored fruits:
Quinces will keep for 2-3 months, after maturing.
Mid-season apples keep for 4-8 weeks
Late season apples need to mature for 4-5 weeks and can then last several months
Pears will store between 2 weeks and 3 months, depending on storage conditions
For example, varieties that store well includes:
Dessert apples: Cameo, Crispin, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Goldrush, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Idared, Jonagold, Macintosh, Pink Lady, Red Delicious, Rome, Winston. There is a long list of other less well-known storing apples here.
Cooking apples: Bramley’s Seedling, Cortland, Lane’s Prince Albert. Also see the Washington State Extension list here.
Dessert pears: Bartlett, Conference (needs maturing after picking) and Doyenne du Comice (also needs after-ripening)
Cooking pear: Catillac
Suitable storage places include basements, garages, or sheds, if they are:
cool, with a temperature of 37-45°F (2.8-7°C) for apples and, if possible, cooler for pears (pears can be stored in a fridge salad compartment).
free from rodents
Five steps to storing fruit (from the RHS)
Gather containers such as crates, slatted shelves, papier-mâché trays or shallow wooden or cardboard boxes. Ideal containers allow good air movement through the sides and over the top.
Select undamaged, medium-sized fruits, ideally with their stalk intact. Those picked just under-ripe usually store best
Lay the fruit in a single layer not touching each other. Place fruit gently to avoid bruising. If necessary, apples can be stacked on top of each other.
Keep different cultivars (varieties) separate as they ripen at different rates. Ideally, keep mid-season cultivars away from late-season ones so that they do not speed up ripening. Likewise, do not store fruit planned to keep a long time near any produce that is sprouting or rotting. They emit ethylene which speeds up ripening.
Label the boxes. Keep fruit away from strong scents that may taint them such as paint, and onions. Quince have a very pungent smell and are best kept away from other fruit
Check stored fruit regularly:
Pears can ripen and pass their best quickly so check daily. In warm conditions they will soften slightly when ripe but, in cooler storage, ripeness will be indicated by a subtle change in color and they’ll then be ready to bring into the kitchen for a day or two to soften before eating
When one tray of fruit is reaching optimum ripeness, remove it from storage promptly as the ethylene released may speed up the ripening of the remaining fruit in storage
Discard any fruit that show signs of rot to prevent disease spreading
Wrapping apples individually in newspaper or tissue paper can help them keep longer but will slow down the task of regular inspection.
If no suitable storage conditions are available, small quantities of apples can be put in plastic bags in the fridge to store for a few weeks. Fill a bag with 4.5-7lb (2-3kg) of fruit, pierce several holes in it and fold the top loosely to allow air circulation.
Storing some pears loose in the salad compartment of the fridge can help to delay ripening until after those in storage have been used.
This is part of my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate or similar. We are entering the dormant period for most fruits, meaning fewer to harvest, none to plant, but still plenty to prune and care for, and new plantings to plan for next year. I give links to some useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
Young persimmon trees produce fruit only a few years after planting, maybe the very year after you plant them. The trees are easy-care, with few pests (maybe aphids) or diseases, and can be grown as espaliers or cordons or in a large container. Persimmons tolerate a wide range of soil types, as long as the drainage is OK. Asian persimmons have leaves that turn yellow or bright orange in fall. The leaves of American persimmons are yellow in the fall. The ripe fruits on the bare branches of either type make an attractive fall display.
Late fall and early winter is the harvest season, and you can lay tarps or old carpets under you trees to catch the falling fruit. Or you can clip ripe fruits with pruners, including a short piece of stem. Exercise patience, although you can after-ripen the fruit off the tree if needed. Expect 1-2 bushels (15-40 lbs/7-18kg) from a mature 10-year-old Asian persimmon tree and 2-3 (30-60 lbs/14-27kg) from a mature American persimmon.
Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki) are generally sweeter and less astringent than the native American varieties, and the fruits are larger, up to small peach size. They are ripe when they are fully colored, slightly firm, slightly soft.
American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are the ones that grow wild in the Eastern half of the US. They are notorious for making your mouth pucker up. This is, if you eat them before they’re very soft and ripe. This can be anywhere between September and February. They may have wrinkled, they may have had a frost. Despite rural myth, they do not need a frost to ripen, although a frost can help. If you wait for the fruit to fall, it will be ripe. Or wait for the fruit to become soft and the skin translucent before you pick them. Some astringent varieties have fruit that will hang on the tree into the winter.
Under-ripe fruit can be ripened after harvest in paper bags, perhaps with a banana peel or some other ripe fruit.
Ripe fruit can be eaten out-of-hand, or dried or frozen. The fruits store a couple of months in the fridge if necessary. They can be mashed to include in puddings, ice cream, pies, smoothies and baked goods such as cookies, cakes or bread.
Propagation of persimmons
While eating persimmons, you can save the seeds. Stratify them (a chilling method that encourages seed germination) by storing them in the fridge for two months. After planting, it will take up to six years before your seedling trees will bear fruit. There are two hybrid persimmons, Russian Beauty and Nikita’s Gift. Don’t grow from seeds of these as they will not grow true to type.
The other method of propagation is to take cuttings. You can graft Asian persimmons on to native persimmon root stock at bud emergence.
Choosing persimmon varieties
Choose varieties suited to your location. Asian persimmons need mild winters. Fuyu grows in zones 7-11, tolerating temperatures down to 0°F (-18°C). Other Asian varieties can tolerate 10°F (-12°C) and will grow in zones 8-10. The hybrid Asian/American Russiyanka and most American persimmons, on the other hand, can tolerate temperatures as low as -25°F (-32°C) and will grow in zones 5-9.
Let the winter-hardiness zone decide what type to grow. In Zones 9-10 grow non-astringent Asian persimmons; in Zones 7-8, astringent Asian persimmons may be better suited for colder winter temperatures and milder summer temperatures. In zone 6 and colder, grow American persimmons or the hardy hybrids.
Most American persimmons require both male and female trees to get a good fruit set. Most Asian persimmons are self-fertile, but yield more and bigger fruit when several compatible trees are grown together.
Consult your Extension Service and local plant nurseries for which kinds do best in your area. Prices can vary widely, and quality may vary too. The Harvest to Table site has variety descriptions of 3 American persimmons and 8 Asian types.
Asian persimmons do best in full sun, while American persimmons can grow in partial shade, on forest edges. Choose a site with enough sunlight for the final height of the trees. Asian persimmons grow to be 25-30 ft (7.6-9m) tall and almost as wide. American persimmon trees grow taller – 30-40 ft (9-12m).
Plant the trees about 20ft (6m) apart in all directions, in late winter or early spring. Dig holes deep enough for the long taproots. Stake the tree for the first couple of years, then de-stake.
Care of persimmon trees
Do not over-fertilize with nitrogen, or the fruit may drop early. In backyards, plant them in the lawn (if you have one) and the grass growth and mowing will provide enough nutrients.
Prune in winter when the tree is dormant, being aware that persimmons fruit on last year’s wood. (Don’t cut everything back the same year.) train young trees to an open center (goblet style) or to a central leader. Tape or burlap the trunks of young trees to prevent sunscald injury.
Other small fruits still available in November
Quinces look like large fuzzy yellow apples, growing on large shrubs. They are ripe when the fruit have a good smell and develop a split from top to bottom. They are usually cooked, rarely eaten raw. The easiest way I know to cook them is to bake them whole, until the flesh is soft. This does take a while. They make delicious jelly.
Wintergreen is another native, frequently overlooked. The tiny berries often persist through the winter (I guess they’re not too popular with wildlife. . .)
Jujube (Chinese dates, red dates) ripen mid to late fall.
Other fruit care in November in the mid-Atlantic
Weed and fertilize rhubarb, blueberries, summer-fruiting raspberries, spread cardboard and sawdust mulch. Weed grapes, take any cuttings wanted. Cover unions of grafted grapes until the spring to protect from cold damage. Plant new blueberries if needed. Weed strawberries and top up the sawdust paths. In colder areas, you may cover strawberries with hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Weight down the edges with sticks, rocks or sandbags.
This is part of my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate or similar. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
Fall Raspberries are the focus fruit for October
Fall-fruiting raspberries have the advantage that you won’t need to worry about spring frosts killing the blossoms, so this is a good crop for colder spots in your garden. We used a frost pocket we called the “Arctic Circle”. Avoid areas that have recently grown tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or other nightshades, or strawberries or raspberries, because of the risk of soil-borne diseases.
To get an abundant fall harvest, you can have an easy life, pruning all the canes to the ground in winter or early spring. I used to do this by removing the ropes holding the canes into their corral and then mowing the canes down (very quick work!). I left the pairs of T-posts in place and mowed between them.
After raking out and composting the canes, I could get in and weed thoroughly before the canes started growing. As they grow, thin them out to a two inches (5cm) apart. Over-crowded canes will not grow strong or produce good harvests. Once they reach 3 ft (1m) tall, add ropes to the T-posts, making a corral.
I recommend Caroline red fall raspberries. They are large and flavorful, very productive, and tolerant to yellow rust and root rot. The golden ones, Anne, also sound good, but more people like traditional red raspberries, so we went with those. We planted beds 9 ft (3m) apart, with our purchased plants 28” (about 70cm) apart. (They soon filled out the space). You can grow a perennial clover crop in the aisles, or if you have perennial weeds to conquer, an annual winter rye cover crop, followed by a summer cover crop. Hopefully you will have got rid of perennial weeds before planting raspberries!
Because raspberries don’t do well if it’s hot and dry, pay attention to watering. Drip irrigation works well for raspberries, because once it’s in place for the season, very little work is needed to ensure your plants get enough water. Plus, water is not landing on the leaves, where it could encourage fungal diseases.
Nourse farms supply an online Planting Guide. They say “If you read it, they will grow”. I recommend it. Also see Harvest to Tablefor concise, experienced information on this and many other crops.
Calendar of fall raspberry care
Starting now, for those who have fall raspberry varieties, and proceeding through the winter into next year.
September, October: Weed shallowly. Harvest and enjoy. Water well.
November, December, January: Cut all canes to the ground after the leaves drop. Weed, compost and mulch the beds. (We have used the tops from our November–harvest storage carrots.) Dig up rogue canes from the aisles, maintaining a 12-15” (30-35cm) bed width. Order new plants if needed.
February, March: Prepare future new beds. Plant new canes with compost (not artificial fertilizer, which is too fast-acting), keeping the roots damp as you work. Make the planting holes big enough to allow the roots to spread out. Set the canes an inch (2.5cm) lower in the soil than they were in the nursery or pots. Firm the soil thoroughly around the roots, by stepping on it. Roots will die if they are in air pockets. Water in well. Spread organic mulch around the planted canes to keep the soil damp and deter weeds. Set 5 ft (1.5m) T-posts in pairs across the bed, every 20-25 ft (6-7.5m). Water 2” (5cm) per week as needed. There may be no visible new growth for 4-6 weeks. Existing beds: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles.
April: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles. Set up ropes at heights of 3ft (1m) and 5ft (1.5m). Thin fall raspberry canes to 2” (5cm) apart.
May, June, July, August: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles
Raspberry varieties labelled as “fall-fruiting” are capable of providing two crops each year: a summer crop and then a smaller fall crop. To achieve this, you need to prune them the same way you prune summer-fruiting-only varieties, leaving the newer canes that have not yet fruited, removing only the old fruited canes in late winter or very early spring.
Other small fruits still available in October
Watermelons, Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), blackberries, kiwi berries (Actinidia arguta, aka hardy kiwi, Chinese kiwi), muskmelons, muscadine grapes, rhubarb (light harvest). In some areas, Asian Persimmons, elderberries, Figs, and pawpaws may still be available.
Annual fruits such as Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in early July!
Other small fruits becoming available in October
American persimmons are the ones that grow wild in the Eastern half of the US. They are notorious for making your mouth pucker up. This is, if you eat them before they’re soft and ripe. This can be anywhere between September and February. They may be wrinkled, they may have had a frost. Despite rural myth, they do not need a frost to ripen.
Wintergreen is another native, frequently overlooked. The tiny berries often persist through the winter (I guess they’re not too popular with wildlife. . .)
This is another in my monthly series of posts about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a (loosely-speaking) mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
Watermelons are the focus fruit for September
Nothing beats a big slice of watermelon during a break from working in the fields. It’s a good cure for dehydration, especially if lightly salted to balance the electrolytes, and helps improve heat tolerance. It’s good to know watermelon are nutritious, but frankly, their main claim to fame is that they are delicious, and just about everyone wants one when the weather is hot.
I’ll start with information on harvesting, and pests and diseases to watch out for, then cycle round to things to think about for next summer’s watermelon crop.
The skill of the harvester in discerning ripeness is a major factor affecting the taste. The first sign we look for is the shriveling and browning of the tendril on the vine directly opposite the little stem of the watermelon. If this tendril is not shriveled we walk on by. Next we slap or knock on them.
According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, when a watermelon is ripe, it will have a hollow sound when you thump it with your knuckles: it sounds like thumping your chest. If it sounds like knocking your head, it’s not ripe; if it sounds like hitting your belly, it’s over-ripe. There is a 10-14-day period of peak ripeness for each variety. We harvest our Crimson Sweet from around 7/25 (75 days from transplanting) to the end of August. We might be still harvesting in September.
Lastly, we do the “Scrunch Test”: put two hands (heels together) spread out across the melon, press down quite hard, listen and feel for a scrunch – the flesh in the melon is separating under the pressure. Rumor has it that it only works once, so pay attention!
Other growers with other varieties use different ripeness signs, such as the change in color of the “ground spot” (the area touching the ground), or the change in rind texture from glossy to dull.
I like to cut the melon stems with pruners, but some people break them off. Watermelons need gentle handling, as do the vines if you will be returning to harvest again. After harvest, we set the melons out to the side of the row for pickup. This gives time for sap to start to ooze out of the cut stem. If the sap is red or orange, the melon is ripe. If it is straw-colored, the melon was cut too soon. This is useful feedback for new crew.
Post-Harvest Storage of Watermelons
Watermelons can store for a few weeks, but then flavor deteriorates. We store ours outdoors in the shade of a building or a tree. Rotating the stored stock is a good idea. (Consider dating them with a grease pencil/china marker). The ideal storage temperature is 50-60°F (10-15.5°C), with 90% humidity.
Compared to some crops, watermelons are not often challenged by many pests.
Striped cucumber beetles are our worst pest. They eat not only the leaves (which reduces the sweetness of the melons) but also the rind of the melons, leaving an unattractive russeted surface, thinner than it was originally, and easily damaged. Cucumber beetles can also interfere with fruit set by eating the stamens and pistils of the flowers. Don’t worry unless you see two beetles or more per plant.
Aphids (usually green peach aphids) can be a problem to young plants – another reason to use rowcover or fine mesh netting. If needed, use insecticidal soap, or import ladybugs or lacewings.
Spider mites can be a problem in hot dry weather if populations are driven into the patch by mowing of bordering grassy areas. Heavy rain, vigorous spraying with water or overhead irrigation will reduce numbers.
Root knot nematodes can attack roots and produce galls. This leads to loss of vigor and wilting.
Organic growers do not usually get many disease problems with watermelon, provided the soil fertility is well-balanced and the plants are not physically damaged. There are a few diseases to watch for:
Alternaria leaf spot
Cercospora leaf spot
Gummy stem blight
Watermelon fruit blotch/bacterial fruit blotch is a serious seed-borne disease
Bacterial wilt – watermelon is resistant, although young seedlings could succumb.
Fusarium wilt is a persistent soil-borne fungal disease that infects the roots, invading the xylem cells.
Anthracnose is a fungal foliar disease that can cause loss of vigor and fruit spotting.
After trying several varieties, we settled on Crimson Sweet, a 20-25 lb (9-11 kg) striped 10 x 12” (25 x 30 cm) oval OP melon which takes 86 days from transplant to harvest. It has tolerance to some strains of Anthracnose and Fusarium. Its flavor is the best! For many years, I saved the seed, selecting for size, earliness, disease resistance and flavor. This is available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, as Crimson Sweet, Virginia Select.
Charleston Gray is another popular large variety, with a redder color but less sweetness than Crimson Sweet. Black Tail Mountain (OP, 73 days) was made famous by Glenn Drowns, who developed it as a fast-growing, highly productive, rich flavored melon he could grow in a cold climate in northern Idaho. It stores for up to 2 months after harvest. OrangeGlo (85 days) is an outstanding orange-fleshed variety, with large fruits and great tropical flavor.
“Icebox” varieties are 6” (15 cm) round, 8-12.5 lbs (3.6-5.7 kg) melons, perfect for small refrigerators. Some varieties are ready as soon as 64 days after transplanting. Seedless triploid varieties Dark Belle (F1 75d) and Fun Belle are said to be better tasting than traditional Sugar Baby (77d) and orange New Orchid (80d). But triploid seedless watermelon seed is expensive and harder to germinate, and the transplants are very fragile and tricky to establish. Triploid varieties are hybridized from a cross between two plants with incompatible sets of chromosomes. This results in sterility (lack of seeds).
Even smaller than the icebox size are “mini” watermelons, 3-6 lb (1.4-2.7 kg). Golden Midget is an OP seeded mini from Baker Creek 70d, 3 lbs (1.4 kg). There are also triploid seedless varieties. Solitaire (triploid, 88d), is a single serving watermelon from Johnny’s. It has 6” (15 cm) diameter fruit. Harvest can begin 78 days after transplanting.
I’ll do a blogpost on growing watermelons next spring, once you might be sowing the seed, or at least planning your garden layout.
Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in June!
Other small fruits becoming available in September
Kiwiberries (Actinidia arguta, aka hardy kiwi, Chinese kiwi) and elderberries. American persimmons need to be soft before they’re nice to eat. This can be anywhere between September and February. If the wildlife are not going to wait for them to ripen, harvest them early and let them ripen indoors.
Other fruit care in September
Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit (weed blueberries and raspberries shallowly, so as not to damage roots).
Prepare and plant new strawberry beds in early September if not done in late August, using potted runners. If needed, use rooted runners from the paths of an old patch to fill gaps. Renovate strawberries to carry over for next season, if not already done.
This is another post in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a vaguely mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
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Grapes are the focus fruit for August
The Cornell2022 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Grapes 2022-org-grapes-NYSIPM.pdf (3.291Mb) is a great resource. It covers soil health, pre-planting and under-vine cover crops, site selection, variety selection, nutrient requirements, integrated pest management, and more in its 90 pages. Be aware that it is written with the Northeast in mind.
If you are planning to grow grapes, late summer is a good time to prepare the site and sow a cover crop to suppress weeds, increase the organic matter in the soil, and if you include legumes, provide some slow-release nitrogen for the new vines.
Types of grapes
Grapes are a long-term perennial crop, so good research into suitable types and varieties is important. Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) and table grapes do not grow well organically on the east coast, because of fungal diseases. Mars is a table grape that grows relatively well organically. It resembles Concord. Vitis Labrusca grapes (Concord, Niagara, etc) are much less susceptible than Vinifera varieties. Hybrid Grapes (Labrusca x Vinifera), such as Arandell, Cayuga White, Corot Noir, Noiret, and Traminette have better potential for Organic culture than Vinifera types.
We grow Labrusca grapes, mainly Concord, with a few Allred, with a selection of other varieties that we are trialing, including the Planets (Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, Venus) and Edelweiss, Fredonia, Marquis, Niagara, Reliance, Sheridan, Steuben, Vanessa. All these are suitable for juice, jam and jelly. Fredonia, Marquis, Mars, Niagara, Reliance, Steuben, Vanessa and Venus are dessert quality, but mostly they have thick skins, big seeds, and a sour taste. Some of these varieties are susceptible to Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and/or Black Rot, and I wouldn’t buy those again. Likewise, I would not buy grafted vines, such as the Cynthiana and Niagara, as we are not good at remembering to cover and uncover the graft unions when the seasons change.
In the South, Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) will grow easily, although Vinifera and Labrusca grapes won’t. See Mark Hoffman, Patrick Conner et al, Muscadine Grape Production Guide for the Southeast. Also see the chapter on muscadines in Blake Cothron, The Berry Grower. (My review coming soon) This less publicized grape type deserve more attention, especially in hot, humid areas.
The aromatic, sweet, large round muscadine grapes are resistant to diseases and pests (perhaps thanks partly to their thick skins), have 4-10 grapes per bunch, mature in 90-120 days, and separating from the vine with a dry scar when ripe.
The muscadine industry is a multimillion-dollar industry in the US, but most people don’t know it. Muscadines are probably the first cultivated native grape in the US. There are at least 100 cultivars of muscadines, including Scuppernong, the one people are most likely to have heard of. Some varieties are more suited to wine-making, others for fresh eating. Some are seedless. Individual plants are either male or female, with a few self-fertile cultivars. Planting a ratio of 3 female to 1 self-fertile vine will ensure pollination. Those in areas experiencing winter temperatures below 10F (zone 7b and colder) should choose a relatively cold-hardy variety. Make a trellis before planting time, allowing 16’ (5m) between vines:
Thomas Munsonin Texas “. . . became one of the leading experts in native American grape species, and his studies were instrumental in saving the European grape and wine industry from disaster during the late nineteenth century.” Free Munson grape cuttings are available from Grayson College, Texas for growers and breeders (request in the fall). These grapes are easier to grow organically under a wider range of conditions
As with many fruit trees, good air drainage is important. This means an open site where cold air can flow away downslope, and not cause a frost pocket. A site that has some protection from cold winds is valuable. Grapes benefit from soil that absorbs rainfall and lets it drain away when excessive. If your soil is compacted, do some deep cultivation before planting grapes. If necessary install drainage. This important site selection and preparation takes time, so start now! Get a soil test in the fall, and perhaps sow cover crops – see the Cornell publication for ideas.
Preparations for planting
Turn under or smother any cover crops in the rows. Build a strong trellis with cross arms and wires to fit your chosen trellising method. We use the Geneva Double Curtain, a cordon method. It has a single lower wire, fastened to the posts, and a higher wire on each side, fastened to the ends of the arms. If the first vine is trained over the lower wire and onto the east upper wire, say, the next vine will be trained over the lower wire and up to the west upper wire. By alternating, each vine can be planted 10 ft (3m) from its neighbors, but have room on the top wires for cordons (arms) of 10 ft (3m) in each direction, until they meet each other.
Install orchard grade drip irrigation (tubing with integral emitters). The tubing can hang on clips on the low wire of the trellis. This prevents accidental mowing or rodent damage.
Be ready by the early spring shipping date. Ours was 24 March.
Dig 16” (40 cm) deep holes for new vines. Put 4” (10cm) loose topsoil in each hole (no compost). When the vines arrive, unpack them and soak the roots in water for 3-24 hours. For own-rooted plants, pruning roots to 6” (15cm) is possible but not needed. Grafted vines need planting with the graft union 2-3” (5-8cm) above the soil surface, the union temporarily covered with soil until the plant starts to grow.
Spread the roots into loose soil. Cover to 4” (10cm) below grade. Position own-rooted vines at the same depth as it was in the nursery. Tread firmly. Fill the last 4” (10cm) with loose soil (don’t tread). Install label and stake (bamboo). Tie the vine to the stake. (Stakes will be removed after 2 years.) Mulch with cardboard and sawdust. You could prune now to 8-10 buds above the crown spur, and prune more later, or leave for now. Label the vines, make a map and logbook to note flowering and fruiting times, and success of new vines.
Annual Grape Calendar
Compost and re-mulch the vines. Check and repair the drip irrigation. Update maps and logs.
Could take dormant wood cuttings, 6-9” (15-23cm) long, cut at the top 1” (2.5cm) above bud at a slope, heel in, label clearly.
Plant any new vines. Prune existing vines. See notes made the previous year, about replacement arms, etc. Be sure to prune vines well back from young vines, as competition is hard on them. Vines pruned after the buds swell will leaf out a little later, and may avoid late frosts. Tie in well to top wire. Remove any wrong side growth.
Weed the rows, particularly around new vines. Remove stakes from any vines planted two years ago. Mow the aisles. Water if in drought, 1” (2.5cm) per week.
Layer branches of existing vines to fill gaps (very effective gap-filling method). Lay a tip with several buds 2-5” (5-12cm) deep in a trench, cover with 3” (7.5cm) of soil. When new growth starts to appear, fill the trench and pack firmly. Separate the plants the following fall. Layering can also be done in the fall.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases. Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.
New Vines: One week after bloom, remove all fruitlet clusters in the first two years after planting. After hard frosts are past, or once growth starts, prune the new vines to a single stem with 2 or 3 buds above the crown spur. Or if the vine is vigorous, leave two trunks, one for insurance. Remove any suckers growing from the base of the vine.
Mature vines: One week after bloom, thin clusters to one per bud, if the number of clusters exceeds 60 on a mature vine (24 for a 4-year-old, 12 for 3-year-old).
Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases.
New vines: Rub off or prune away all side branches growing on main trunks below chosen cordons, and remove any fruit clusters that appear. Tie in new growth.
Once a month – Remove dead wood. Train to wires. Tie in. Take notes. Keep aisles mowed.
Harvest – early August some years, or late August if the first buds got frosted. New vines will not yield for two years, and full bearing capacity will not be reached until 5th or 6th year. The productive life of a vine is 20-30 years.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.
Weed. Water if needed. Last mowing early October. Cover the graft unions of any grafted vines with soil.
Pests and diseases of grapes
Monitor for Black Rot, Botrytis, Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew, Phomopsis, Anthracnose, and other fungal diseases. Be on the lookout for grape Berry Moth, leafhoppers, scale insects, spider mites and Japanese beetles. Don’t panic about a few Japanese beetles. Grapes (and many other crops) can take a certain amount of defoliation before suffering a loss of yield.
For full technical details, see the Cornell publication mentioned above.
Other small fruits available in August
Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), blackberries, crabapples, fall raspberries, muskmelons, peaches, and plums are still available. Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in May or June!