Love in a Cold Climate

sprouting tomato seeds

sprouting tomato seeds

Shivering Seeds

Recently a fellow gardener mentioned to me the trials of sprouting seeds in a house where temperatures dip into the 50’s. Dip? Ha! In our house, we heat with wood, and the stove is at one end of the house, where the chimney was built. My fingers are barely able to feel the keyboard as I write. Modern houses tend to be built with the assumption that you can warm yourself by turning up the thermostat. I could, but I refuse, both out of parsimony and stubbornness.  If I had the house to build over, and I had a say, I would build a big old European style tiled wood stove, with an oven. Anyway, we are blessed to have the wood stove we have, and deadwood on the farm, and chainsaws, and fuel to run them, and arms to split wood.

Insulated Micro-Environments

My favorite insulated micro-environment is our bed. Not practical for the seeds. So. Where, in a cold and/or energy efficient house do you find a place which will give your seeds any kind of bottom heat that is consistent? Pepper seeds like it 80-90 Fahrenheit, tomatoes and eggplants slightly less. I used to set mine on top of the water heater, but since we turned it down and insulated it, that’s a no go. Setting it near the wood stove is dangerous- the pots have been known to pucker with the heat. My latest insulated micro-environment is an old yoghurt maker. It is one of those long ones with holes for the glass cups and a top. If mine were the proper heat, putting seed pots in the holes would be too hot. As it is very old and debilitated, the heat is very gentle and it would be fine if I had my seeds in old yoghurt containers. I think it is about 85, which is especially fine for peppers. Since my seeds are in bigger square pots that don’t fit in there, I fit 4 of them in a plastic salad container (people save them for me), wrap it in an inside out (cleaner) used plastic grocery bag, and balance it on top of the yoghurt maker. I can fit two boxes on it, on a shelf where nobody bothers it, wedged between pipes, because it would be a disaster for them to tumble off, and then cover that with towels to keep in the heat. This way I can give good heat to 8 varieties at a time. This might be fine for some, but I grow a freakishly large number of varieties.

Rot and Death

For the rest of my pots, it has been touch and go. I would hastily move them to the dryer, which gets warm on top, when weather was too nasty to use the clothesline or I was drying black clothes. I would put them in a black plastic bag in a sunny window. I would stack shelves all around the yoghurt maker in hopes of gleaning some heat. What happens to me is of course that I get mold, slow germination, and with older seeds, rot and death! I have a few tricks that help. I sprinkle cinnamon on any white fuzz that comes up- it is a fungicide, I open up any that seem soggy to let them dry out a tiny bit, I check overdue seeds  by squishing one between my fingers- then at least if it’s rotten I know to reseed, and I rotate boxes of sprouting seeds between the warmest spots. Once they have sprouted at all, I put them in a window so they can get the chlorophyll working. They need about 10 degrees bottom heat warmer for sprouting than they need to grow, and a 10-20 F temperature drop at night is fine. (By the way, all these hyperlinks are to other articles I have written on the highlighted subjects.)

Thank God for Goodwill

The absolute best germination mat I ever used was the kind of heating mat taxi drivers use to sit on. I had it on the lowest setting and it worked like a charm, except that it used to give me a shock now and then. My husband found it in the Goodwill for ten bucks. It died after a bit and we haven’t found another one.

So, why don’t we spring for one of those nifty new germination mats they sell in fancy gardening catalogs? They cost seventy bucks, which would not kill us, but I think it is something about the naffyness of them. It’s sort of like the reason I gather my own basket weaving supplies instead of buying them at a craft shop. People didn’t use to have them. People used to grow out their tobacco seedlings in flats hundreds of years ago. How did they do it? I think we need to invent something better and tidier than what I do, but I haven’t figured out what yet.

Peppers Hot and Sweet: Growing food and medicine from Chile Agua to Bhut Jolokia

Jimmy Nardello pepper plant

Jimmy Nardello is a sweet Italian pepper that is pretty and prolific.

Of all the Solanaceae, Capsicums (the pepper family) are are neck in neck with Tomatoes for my affection.There are SO many peppers! Peppers of every flavor, every color,every shape and size, they are pretty plants, and they are generally really easy to grow, given a bit of warmth and sunshine, even in containers. They produce generously, and they are both delicious and very medicinal. You couldn’t ask for a better plant friend.


The heat of capsicums doesn’t register on a thermometer, but it isn’t just a flavor either. The “heat” comes from a rubefacient (reddening) effect on the tissues. It causes your capillary veins to open, pulling extra blood through the affected area, because your surface nerves think you are in contact with something chemically hot that needs to be repaired, although it isn’t actually damaging you.The combination of heat sensation and flavor creates synergy that is addictive to so-called chiliheads! But peppers are a medicinal herb as well: Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chile heat, doesn’t  just affect your tongue and other mucus membranes(do NOT touch your eye!), but your external skin as well. This can be great for sore muscles, -and literally a life saver.

Medicinal Use: For Aches and Pains, wear it:

Even if you don’t eat hot peppers, you should grow them to make liniments and creams for sore muscles and stiff joints. If you can tolerate eating a little, it’s good for your heart! Some people even carry hot sauce or cayenne tincture with them in case of a heart attack. (I’m not a doctor; just a gardener who reads).

Make your own pain relief:  

For sore muscles, you can tincture peppers in alcohol to make a liniment rub, or make an oil infusion as a heating massage oil.

To tincture in alcohol, fill a glass jar with dried cayenne peppers and top with cheap vodka or other 80 proof alcohol. In a few days you will find that the alcohol has turned orange and is very spicy. Rub it on stiff muscles and painful joints, a lot of it. The drawback is that alcohol feels cold, but it does penetrate better than oil. For a post on tincturing and othe nice things like making liqueurs, click here.

To make an oil infusion, do the same thing but with oil. I have used fresh peppers as well as pepper flakes for this. It needs to stay warm for a week to ten days, which, since it doesn’t matter if it is affected by the sun, can be done in the back window of a parked car, or sitting on a radiator. You can then draw it off the top and leave the rest to get stronger if you like, or filter it. I use olive oil, but other oils, like jojoba, penetrate better, so that is my next trick. Rub it on achy muscles and cover.

Here’s what I do for back spasms, etc.: My DH hurts his back now and again, so I set up my massage table in front of the woodstove and lay out my materials. I actually combine some peppermint infused oil as well for good measure. Alcohol tinctures are great, but only if applied warm. I prepare some wet towels folded into squares, and heat them in the evil microwave (which I use for nothing else!). I have some warm quilts ready. I lay him out face down, covered with quilts except for the area I’m working on, and start rubbing spicy oils into his back, applying the oil gently all over the back and then massaging slowly from the least sore areas towards the worst. Of course my hands will get very hot, but I really hate working with gloves. If I ever get arthritis, I’ll benefit from these sessions even more. When it’s time to take a break, I put a thin cloth on the sore area, put the hot wet towel in a big ziploc bag, lay it on top, and cover with the quilts. He may well sleep by then.  I replace the hot packs as they cool and let him rest. He feels the heat on his back for hours, even after he’s up and moving around. Capsaicin is a great painkiller!

Cardiac claims: Alternative healers say that warming herbs like ginger root and hot peppers warm the body, energize the heart, and thin the secretions. I certainly find a spicy soup can fend off a cold. Hot peppers can make your nose run, which can unblock it, and help you to feel better. Spicy food gets your digestion going as well, so you may feel a lot lighter afterwards…. But to decide if you think it is good for your heart is up to you. My husband says it makes him feel better, but he is a person who shuns pharmaceuticals in general.  It is certainly part of many herbal heart remedies, and it is good for you in many ways, although a very few people are allergic. What it apparently, allegedly, (note me being careful) does for the heart is open up the capillaries, thereby helping circulation to the extremities and taking the load off the heart. Therefor some people carry cayenne tincture with them to guzzle in the event of a heart attack. My husband says should he ever keel over he wants me to dump it down his throat and into his eyes. Yee-ikes!

the only thing we didn't harvest was the quinoaCulinary Use: Eat the Heat- and the Sweet

We gauge pepper heat in terms of Scoville Units.  From Bell peppers to the deadly hot Bhut Jolokia , also known as the Naga Bhut Jolokia, there are about a million Scovilles. It’s sort of silly- Jalapenos are  about 3000, Red Caribbean Habaneros are 300,000. Please. How do they get these numbers? Somebody explain this to me. But people who love hot peppers,- I call them chiliheads, are nerdy masochists. We delight in creating evil concoctions to drip onto our food, and try to one-up each other with the latest white-hot bullet from the wilds of Borneo, brought back by an expedition of which half the explorers were eaten by cannibals. Names of chili sauces read like death metal album covers: Lethal Ingestion, Trinidad Scorpion Ghost…but as I get older, not only do I get a stomach ache from overindulging in seriously hot peppers, but I’m sort of over the heat competition, and more into interesting flavors- like the bouguet of apricot and caramel you taste when biting into a habanero in the nanoseconds before the pain hits.

Sweet No Heat:

Perhaps I was a bit giddy, saying they come in every flavor. Peppers come sweet to hot, with lots of overtones and undertones, like wine. I didn’t mean to claim they come in mint or banana, -although there are both sweet and hot banana peppers; long, yellow, and ripening in generous bunches. In Spanish, the bell pepper that most Anglos think of as safe and friendly is known as Chile Agua. Water chile. Fleshy and full of water, and at least the green ones, compared to other peppers, taste like…water. Friends, there is more to peppers than water. But common sweet peppers include the Bells, the sweet bananas, the grilling peppers like cubanelles, although not all grilling peppers are absolutely sweet, the sweet cherry peppers, which are wonderful stuffed with cheese, and some sweet pickling peppers. There are lots of sweet peppers with rich, sweet, fruity flavors.

What Wimps can Grow: Packet descriptions are clear about heat. If you are one of those wimps who just can’t associate food pleasure with mouth pain, there are still plenty of choices. I grow California Wonder for my parents, and last year I tried a Burpee mix called Carnival Bells, which included purplish black bells that cooked up green but were pretty in a salad, green bells that ripened yellow, although there were supposed to be oranges and reds as well, and a compact plant that produced ivory mini-bells that ripened pale apricot. The sweet grilling peppers are about 6-8 inches long and usually 1/2-2 inches thick. I I love Jimmy Nardello, a gorgeous Italian sweet frying pepper that ripens rapidly and dramatically. The graceful waxy green fruits, 1/2 inch thick by 8 inches long, seem to catch on fire, the deep crimson streaks flickering up the sides before the whole fruit turns lipstick red. It is very pretty and delicious. I did get a few with a touch of heat though, and I am growing them with extra care this year not to confuse any because it distinctly says Jimmy Nardello is sweet. There are peppers that play pepper roulette, but I think the error may have been mine. Usually little peppers are viciously hot, but I have a pepper from the Amazon that looks like a red Habanero but is quite fruity-sweet except at the very center. It may be a rocotillo type, as it take forever to mature. A lot of South American peppers are low heat.

Medium Heat: But live a little. Get some medium hots. Jalapenos are being bred now to milder and milder heats- even a no heat (what a yawn). And pickling peppers brings the heat down- something about the vinegar. That’s for a  summer post, but it is very easy to make semi-spicy pepper relish. But who can resist a good jalapeno popper?

A big medium Hatch pepper has just enough heat to make a thoroughly delicious relleno (pepper stuffed with potatoes and cheese. Hatch is an Anaheim type from Hatch County, New Mexico, so you can’t legally call what I grow in Maryland a Hatch pepper, but they are delicious.  In Ft.Worth when I visited my sisters in law, they were selling huge bags of hot, medium or mild fresh Hatch peppers at the Whole Foods, and outside they had a man roasting them in a big revolving cage like a lotto machine. Hot peppers are a part of Texan culture! Love it. Big Jim is a popular Hatch type you can grow.

Last year I went to Roswell, New Mexico, where the UFO museum is. I hit the hardware store and this year I will be trying Sandia, Santa Fe Improved, and Lumbre, which did not germinate well. I may give it another try as the man said they were a favorite. I am also growing Chimayo, billed as a landrace pepper, which means people just grew them and saved the seed of what grew well, not worrying too much about isolation. Check back with me in the fall of 2014 for results on those.

Ancho,which means wide in Spanish, are the big dark green triangular peppers you see in the store. They make awesome chiles rellenos! They vary in heat and size, but usually the ones in the store are milder and larger than what I grow. I love their smoky flavor, made smokier when I blister them on the stove and rub off the skins (will elaborate in another post this summer). Once semi-softened by this procedure, I can make a hole in them to rinse out the seeds, stick in some cheese and potato, dip them in egg, and fry them. So delicious. Live a little.

 Real Heat:

OK, now we get to the heart of chile love. There are reasonable chiles with reasonable heat, like a normal Jalapeno, cayenne, chile negro, chile japones, chile pasilla. By the way, I thought chipotles were smoked, red-ripened jalapenos, but Phillipe Reyes, a friend from Mexico, who grows a lot of chiles in Bristol, VA says they are not; and that they are a specialized pepper (more on this later). They are too fleshy to dry without smoking them. Chile guajillo is kind of medium, with a lot of caramelized flavor and a dark, smooth, shiny appearance when ripened and dried. Then there are chiles that hurt, like chiltepins that grow on wild perennial plants in the Southwest, chile pequins, chile arbol (not too bad). Then there are the rock ‘n roll legends: The habaneros, african bird peppers,  7 Pot (one peppers heats 7 pots of food), Bhut Jolokia the Ghost Pepper, also known as teh Naga (Bhut means ghost, Naga means deadly snake) and most recently, the Trinidad Scorpion. The Indian government is using Bhut Jolokia to make a non-lethal bomb to flush out terrorists. They also put it on food. The theory is that you break a sweat and feel cooler. Hm.

Growing the Legends:

Most of these you need to start early, and you are best off overwintering them indoors and growing them as perennials. (Phillipe Reyes suggests putting a chunk of Tilapia fish under the plant in a pot to give it the extra nutrition it will need to tolerate groing in a container. He reports people keeping chile de arbol in pots for 25 years.) We travel a lot, so I am always on the lookout for new varieties to try. When we were in the Peruvian jungle I got a few in Pucallpa, and one in upriver Yarinacocha, that I treasure, like the Mirasol Amarillo de Pucallpa, which is  neither yellow nor upward pointing, but makes sublime, perfumey, white hot ceviche. But the Aji Rojo, which just means hot red pepper, that I got from my friend Rosaura’s garden behind La Perla, a jungle B&B in Ucayali, takes forever. I start it in January and I’m lucky to get fruit by November. So now I grow some in pots. They are tiny C.Frutescens, I believe, a brilliant red pepper the size of a wren’s beak, which is dried and powdered, added to food while cooking, or crushed with salt and vinegar into a very hot, slightly citrussy paste which is spread on small flat river fish. You see the attraction?

Easy to grow hots:

Bili mirc pepper seedlings just coming up

Bili mirc pepper seedlings just coming up

Some of the peppers I met in India, such as the lal mirc, the bili mirc, and a long curving skinny pepper from Rajasthan called Ganesh, are entirely convenient and easy to grow.  One pepper I got from Assam, which is small, wrinkly,citrussy and pretty lethal, about an inch long, was presented to me as Bhut Jolokia. I think the dear man was trying to be nice. Bhut Jolokia is bigger than that, and an Indian friend told me he ate one and cried for his mother. (India is a wonderful, incredible, enormous place where everything may definitely certainly be possible, but 95% is illusion. That is also worthy of another post.) Most of the peppers I found in India are cayenne types that dry well and make excellent spices and condiments. This means you can just use a bit, if you aren’t gung ho, for a gentle warmth and to experience the subflavors. These peppers are also great for external applications to sore muscles and arthritis, and make nice gifts dried on a string.dried peppers hanging

A Trick for the Cheapsters:

Yes, we want to support our seedsmen, but here’s a secret for the flat broke or just curious you may not have thought of. When you come across dried peppers, the only reason they wouldn’t sprout just as easily as seeds in a package is if they weren’t ripe when they were dried, or if they were heated by more than the sun. I am presently trying to see if there are any survivors in some extra nice chipotles I bought at Krogers. (seeded, soaked, chopped, fried with onions, garlic and olive oil they were DIVINE on eggs) Probably not but I’m just curious how much heat destroys viability. I have also started seedlings from fresh ripe peppers. If the fruit is ripe, you’re good. Of course you may not know the variety name, but you know what you ate, so even if it was a hybrid and you get sketchy parent strains, in a pinch, you can at least get free pepper plants.

How to Start Pepper Plants

little pepper seedlings

Little pepper sprouts waving their pale leaves at the sun

Just go back to my post on how to sprout tomatoes. The same procedure works just fine for all solanaceae- that includes eggplants as well. This post will give you illustrated steps for how to start seeds using organic potting  soil and recycled pots. Plastic plant pots account for a distressing amount of landfill garbage, and they are made from oil as well, so get other people to save them for you and clean and reuse. Sometimes if you have a good relationship with your recycling center they will even save them for you there. Our  Midshore Regional Recycling Center actually called me!

Last Word

You can count on lots more pepper articles here. Recipes, condiments, varieties, yum yum. I actually have been thinking about starting a tour club for chili heads. We know so many great places where chiles grow. Wouldn’t it be fun to ride elephants through a tea plantation in Assam and then go to the pepper gardens? Let me know. We can do it. On this nasty February night, however, it’s enough for me to open up some glowing red powdered peppers from my summer garden and shake them into in my venison chili. Here is the recipe for the chili. Piquante! Hallelujah!

ps If you like that try my venison curry which has met approval from serious people- it is bahut garam and is a good easy introduction to making really authentic tasting Indian food.

Using willow

Do you like baskets? People have been making baskets for millenia, and some are incredibly intricate. Baskets are useful, light, and pretty strong when you consider that they are made out of twigs, grass, leaves, roots, or bark. I sometimes make baskets; it’s really time-consuming but addictive. The hypnotic repeating patterns are sort of trance-forming. I will do a post on that sometime. And while you can buy basket weaving supplies all day long, I think it is more sustainable to make your own. So this post will be about using wild-crafted materials to repair a common wicker laundry basket. Repairing things is, after all, cheaper and better for the planet.

White willow (Salix alba) is what people usually use for medicine, and those long weeping branches are fun to weave with, but Black willow (Salix nigra) is a close cousin, and it’s very common here on the Eastern Shore. It grows in wet places, has a fairly short life, soft wood, and when it is dying you can often find Oyster mushrooms on willow (check mushroom post) I cut two of mine back periodically so that I have usable straight young shoots. This one has spread out and leaned over in the wet ground, so I sometimes have to trim branches so our friend can mow under it.

Salix is latin for willow, and you may notice that it is the root for salicylic acid, as in aspirin and various pimple medicines. Boiled willow bark makes a nice reddish tea that smells a bit like roses. I sometimes make it when I have cramps.  Usually I make it when I am boiling willow in my big stock pot to soften it or to loosen bark to use in repairing baskets. It is like leather.willow projects (14)

Cut the straightest pieces you can find, and no thicker than your thumb or it will be hard to bend them into circles to fit in the pot. Strip off smaller twigs on the shoots you will be using before you come in the house. You can do this by just making a loose fist around it and stripping them off. They are connected very weakly. Bend the shoots by bending small sections of the branch firmly and slowly between your fingers and thumbs. You will see how you can get the pieces in the pot without breaking.  Cover with water and boil for about a half an hour. Pull out the thick end of a piece and see if the bark peels easily. If it doesn’t, boil it longer. If it does, try to get the park off whole, or in wider, neater strips. willow projects (12)If you split it in one place and then support the bark with your hand while pulling back, it will come off in relatively fat strips. It will catch at the little knotholes, so pick it loose and continue. The strips of bark are strong, flexible, and easy to wrap around basket repairs to give a tidy but natural appearance similar to leather. You should use them while they are damp or dry them and rewet them later. If you keep them in a plastic bag they will mildew. Here I have repaired a broken laundry basket handle by reinforcing it with a piece of willow lashed on with bark. While I was doing this I also boiled willow to make wreaths for Christmas gifts. and tea for me. I will do a post on that later.willow projects (19)


Pruning in winter -or whenever

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

When do you prune? The best time to prune trees, shrubs, and rosebushes is when they are dormant, in winter. That being said, you prune when you can. It is better to prune at the wrong time than not prune at all. You prune for a lot of reasons. Pruning keeps plants from getting bigger than we want them to, and it alters their growing habit . You can trim a plant back so it gets more growing points, like the mythical Hydra, which makes it bushier and fuller. You can remove weaker branches to make the plant direct its energy into stronger, more desirable branches. You can prune to open up the structure of the plant to ventilation so that fungal diseases are less likely to thrive. pruning toolsI don’t think they mind being pruned; generally they respond with health and vigor, but pruning roses is like pruning playful cats. Wear clothes that can get ripped, wear heavy leather gloves, start with long loppers,and mind your face. knockout rosesTo whit, I prune my red Knockout roses down hard, to about 1/3 of their summer size, because they are a bit large for the bed I have them in, and because I want lots of new shoots for big bunches of roses.  And while Knockout is a very disease resistant and trouble free rose, selectively opening up the structure of the bush by removing twiggy growth, inward growing growth, and canes with too many closely spaced twigs on them can’t hurt. I prune my climbing Westerfield rose to shape it, control it- ha!- and try to keep the canes from falling over when they are heavy with big, fragrant orange roses. (Correction for my earlier remark about cats- pruning ramblers like Climbing Westerfield is like playing with a nervous tiger. Unless you are very careful you will get hurt.) It is attached to a trellis I made 2 years ago out of black willow prunings, which holds it up against the house. The trellis is rotted and falling apart, so I will be cutting the Westerfield back a little harder this year so I can remove the old trellis and put in a new one. Of course this means I also need to prune the willows, which I whack to the ground every 2-3 years so I will have usable willow branches for basket work. After I have taken away the bulk of the pruning I will clean things up with a smaller pair of clippers. Now I can clip, rake, weed and mulch. I get free mulch from the utility guys who trim the trees along the roadsides. They are delighted to have a free place to drop off their wood chips as long as it is close by, so I stop and tell them where I live when I see them trimming within a few miles of my house. It is important to remember that those heavy trucks can’t drive off of paved roads without getting stuck unless the ground is hard and dry though. Also, bear in mind that wood chips from trees can carry tree pathogens, but I figure that the chips come from nearby  so whatever they may carry would get here anyway. They eventually rot down into a lovely humus which is good for amending the soil in shady beds where you are growing acid-loving plants. before pruning (10)I also need to prune fruit trees. This is very important for disease control and fruit bearing. I really care about fruit. The plums are so delicious, but they are a real pain in Maryland. Fruit trees here suffer from all kinds of problems, since our mild and humid climate is hospitable to insects and fungal diseases. If you have a healthy old tree, treasure it and propagate from it. Young trees need to be shaped. As bends the twig so grows the tree, right? I have two 5 year old trees I will enjoy pruning, because they are happy and healthy, and I have pruned them every year so they have a nice shape. I need to control height, so I can reach the fruit without a ladder, and I need to take out branches that interfere with airflow through the center of the tree. I will cut out all inward growing and crossing branches, and I will also look at how the shape is evolving, and decide if any major branches should come out, based on what they will look like eventually. Branches that look well spaced now will be crowded in a few years, and if we cut it out now the bark will heal quickly and no rot will start inside the tree. Look at the photos and see if you can imagine where the cuts should go before you look at the after pictures. Make clean cuts so they heal well. Don’t leave ragged bark hanging off the wood. Use good tools. Up to a third inch thick clippers work fine; after that loppers work up to an inch, and after that use a small saw like a pruning saw, or a sawsall, if you can control the cuts so they come out clean. I use a sawsall if I have a lot to do, but only on larger branches, since little branches just catch on the teeth and shake wildly. We don’t use tar on pruning cuts any more. The idea is that it traps moisture under the tar, so you can create a skin of tar with bugs or something underneath it. I trimmed and tarred the torn bark on a Coxes Orange Pippin I hit with a weed whacker, and it healed beautifully, so I am not convinced either way. For mature fruit trees you alternate years, taking out major wood one year and trimming back size the next. I have two Japanese plums; a Methley and a Santa Rosa. They are Satsuma types, which means they are red like cherries. They are so delicious- the juice, the jam, the plums in honey syrup in winter, the syrup over ice, maybe with a little wine- I am fighting for the plums. But the Santa Rosa has been dropping all its fruit for the past seven or eight years, so I only let it live for to pollinate the Methley. The Methley has a very nice spreading growth habit, and bears its smallish red fruit heavily along its twigs. Borer damageUnfortunately trunk borers have hit it, as evidenced by balls of clear sap drying on the trunk, and brown slime at the base with little bits of chewed up wood crumbs called frass in it. I have injected straight Neem, an organic tree extract, into the holes in the bark. I have run wires into the holes to try to kill the borers. I cleared the sod away from the trunk to about a foot and a half, dumped a bag of play sand around it, made a plastic tent/skirt around the bottom two feet of trunk and put mothballs in it. But they are back again this year. The tree does seem to be handling it so far. So this year I will thin out small twigs on the Methley to increase ventilation, since we have had Brown Rot the last 2 years (try Serenade, an organic fungicide based on Bacillus Subtilis) and so I can get my Surround in there (a kaolin clay emulsion which is a wonderful organic crop protectant).  The Santa Rosa I am going to cut back very hard, since it is really time I put in a new tree, but I still need my pollinator. before pruning (12)One of the trees I am pruning this week is a very healthy 5 year old sweet cherry. It has a slightly drooping growth habit, and the cherries have been small and miserable, which tells me that it needs a pollinator. I have honestly forgotten what kind it is, which is a bad mistake on my part. Bing, which it may be, needs a pollinator. I planted a Stella nearby, but it got run over by a lawn mower, so it is not as far along as it should be. Last year it seemed to bloom just a little too far behind the other one to be effective. It sure had nice cherries though, for its age. I probably won’t start shaping it this year because the bark hasn’t completely closed over the wounds, and it hasn’t branched out yet. I want it to have plenty of leaf area to gain strength. The Montmorency cherry, which is a sour pie cherry, should start producing this year. I love sour cherries! I also need to whack back the kiwi vines, just for the sake of control. I will cut off the weaker vines and the ones that are trying to get at the roses. I supposedly have three females and one male, but they all look pretty much alike. I thought the males had variegated foliage. If they don’t do something this year maybe I’ll buy another male. You would think they would have blossoms by now. I bought them almost 4 years ago and they are rampant. (NB_Yup, the male is no longer with us) I have a pomegranate! pomegranate (2)It grew quickly from a seed and seems quite happy. The blossoms are wildly orange and look like plastic. We had 2 fruits last year. It has a very twiggy, shrubby, prickly growth habit. It is about five feet tall, but I understand they get pretty big. So far I have thinned out twiggy growth around the base, to make it easier to weed. The leaves are small and don’t seem to keep the tree wet, otherwise I would worry, since it comes from a dry climate. My mother’s fig tree is full of honeysuckle and twiggy growth. I think we should cut it flat to the ground and start fresh. (NB I cut it off about 4 feet tall and removed oldest trunks and wimpy stems) This doesn’t hurt it; usually we have a hard freeze every 10 years and it freezes to the ground. We saw off all the dead trunks and it comes right back, only we miss the first crop of fruits (they fruit twice in a long season). Generally you want to remove weaker stems on a fig, and prevent it from getting too tall to pick from. A good fig tree is a real blessing. Basically, we prune for beauty and for usefulness, because health, beauty, and productivity are all one, but in the end, as the Little Prince said,  “C’est utile puisque c’est beau.” It’s useful because it’s beautiful.