Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

very ripe pear

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Using “overripe” fruit

People often throw away fruit that has even one soft spot. They’ll spit out in disgust an apple that’s mushy and mealy. Yet fruit at this far limit of ripeness actually makes the best cooked sauces.

When fruit is green, it’s hard and sour. It’s hard because the cells are firmly glued together by pectin. It’s sour because the carbohydrate is starch, which has no sweet taste.

cell structure of under ripe fruit

Unripe fruit is sour and hard

If you were to try to cook green fruit into sauce, it would never get sweet, because cooking doesn’t break down starch into sugar. What you might get, if you drain off the liquid, is a solution of pectin, useful for making jelly. This was the traditional way of getting pectin before it was a commercial product.

As fruit gets ripe, several processes occur. At the surface, the whole fruit changes color. Inside, the fruit tissues produce a mixture of esters, flavor molecules that give the characteristic essence of, say, apple, peach, or pear. If this fruity scent is not there before you cook fruit, there’s no way it can be there after!

The pectin that binds the cells, one to another, begins to break down, so the whole fruit gets softer.

cell structure of ripe fruit

ripe fruit is sweet and flavorful

The starch turns to sugar, and goes into each cell’s central vacuole. This vacuole is like a storage tank, which makes up most of the internal space of the cell. The fruit cells become like tiny water balloons, full of flavorful liquid.

When you bite into a piece of fruit that is perfectly ripe, your chewing crushes the cells open to release their sweetness and flavor.

As fruit gets past the point of perfect ripeness, the same processes go further. Esters build up even more, and can give the fruit an “off” flavor, even reminiscent of paint thinner. The starch continues to convert to sugar, and builds up even more in the cell interior.

cell structure of over ripe fruit

overripe fruit is excessively soft

If there’s so much sugar, why is an overripe apple mealy and bland? The pectin that used to glue the cells together is gone, so the cells come apart from each other when you chew. They roll around in your mouth like little BBs. They don’t pop open and release their sweetness.

If you take courage, and dare to cook fruit that has gone into this unpromising state, the magic happens. The heat drives off excess esters, and tones the flavor down. The cells burst open, and release all their internal sugar.

If there’s any complaint, it may well be that the product is “too sweet”. You can always blend it with something that could use additional sweetness, or use it as a sweetener in its own right. Some years ago, there was a spate of natural products advertised as “pear juice sweetened”. This is where that pear sweetener came from.

In using past-peak fruit, there’s a line between overripe and actually rotten. Apples and pears can be completely brown and translucent, but it’s merely their own ripening process.

very ripe pear

Extremely ripe, but fine

This is the same thing that happens, to a different degree, in the fruit of the medlar (Mespilus germanica), closely related to pears and apples. Medlars are not considered ripe until they are “bletted”, which is the word for this stage of being brown and soft.

You can tell by the smell. If it smells like fruit, even very fruity, it’s OK. Your nose knows. But if it smells like vinegar, or mold, or fermented, it’s gone beyond. And of course don’t use it if you can see actual mold.

pear showing mold

surface mold, truly rotting

If you have overripe fruit trickling in piece by piece, you can collect it in bags in your freezer until you have enough for a batch to cook. You can cut it in quarters so it packs better, and to make sure there are no “worms”, as in homegrown fruit.

Damage, such as worms, induce early ripening, so a worm-stung fruit may originally be only overripe, though the hole can introduce rot which quickly spoils the whole thing. Often, especially in pears, a worm does little damage, causing only a hard lump by the core. The major part of the fruit is fine, though unsightly, and perfect for sauce.

potted sundew floating in water

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Grow a sundew plant

Create a microhabitat for a bog plant in a floating pot.

Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) is an intriguing little plant. Part of the intrigue is that sundew is insectivorous, though most of what it “eats” are tiny gnats and midges, nothing even as spectacular as a housefly. The plant maintains its mystique by being seldom seen. It’s not rare. It can be profligately abundant, in the right habitat. But that habitat can be difficult to access — quaking bogs.

A quaking bog is a lake, or lake edge, where sphagnum moss has grown in the water to sufficient quantity that is has formed a floating mat. You can walk out on it, if you don’t mind getting your feet wet. It will support you, but it “quakes” (moves), as you step around. You can play by shifting your weight to alternate legs, and get the surface mat rolling in lazy waves.

The classic explanation of why insectivorous plants grow here is that it’s acidic and nutrient-poor. The plants get nitrogen from insects they can’t get from the ground. But part of it is also physics. Sundew is a tiny plant. If it tried growing on the shore, it would dry out when when water levels dropped, and drown when they rose. Instead, it rides up and down on top of the floating moss, and stays constantly moist despite any lake level changes.

But sundew can also be found in a few curious microhabitats. I lived for a while in Bellingham, Washington, and heard that sundew grew at a certain lake, a popular day hike. I went there, and scoured the area for this little plant several times, never finding it.

The lake was in a rock hollow, scooped out by glaciers. The shore was clean-edged, no quaking bog. Conifer trees grew all around, but evidently the bedrock did not give much to dig their roots into, because they would blow down in storms. The lake was crisscrossed by fallen logs.

Finally, somehow, I thought to look out on the floating logs, and there were the sundews. Not many, but there they would be, right at the edge where wood met water. Wet wood is certainly a low-nitrogen substrate.

The plants were not on logs that draped into the lake. Those would be alternately wet and dry through the year. But logs that were entirely floating could ride up and down with lake level fluctuations, and allow the tiny sundews to stay constantly moist.

So that’s the clue to growing a sundew, without having to water it by eyedropper. You might want to scroll to the bottom to see where this is going.

I had a few sundew plants someone had collected as botanical specimens from a bog. I thought I’d see if I could keep them alive.

sundew plant

Sundew specimen

I used my largest spade bit.

one and one quarter inch spade bit

Spade bit

I drilled into a scrap of half-inch-thick cedar board.

drilling into board


I cut out the drilled section to form a cup.

shallow square wooden cup

Cedar cup

Notice that I drilled the point all the way through, to make a hole.

showing hole goes through to the back

Hole in back

I test-floated this in a little “elevated pond” I have. This is the only way I have found of growing some water plants, without the raccoons tearing them up every night. The “pond” is suspended as a hanging planter, up off the ground. I have it set up to refill every morning from the drip irrigation. The local birds drink from it, and use it as a birdbath.

showing the cup floats with a little water standing inside

Test float

I wanted to make sure water came through the hole, and kept the interior constantly moist. With this satisfactory, I potted the sundews along with a bit of the sphagnum that had come from the bog.

sundews potted into cedar cup

Potted up

Then, I floated this back in the pond.

potted sundew floating in water


This idea might be useful for growing other insectivorous bog plants.


graphic, tree re-work plan

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Shorten cherry trees

A grafting experiment that did not work; to make tall fruit trees short.

In winter of 2019, Arne (I’ll call him), of a local Ecovillage I’ll refer to as “Bamu”, contacted me about some cherry trees. This post is a record of the process. It’s all too easy to never report on failed experiments. But experiments never fail. You always learn something, if only what doesn’t work.

The three cherry trees in question were very tall. They were evidently seedlings, not any improved variety. They bore small, mediocre fruit. They were casting dense shade on other parts of the orchard, preventing fruiting there. The community had decided it was time to try and do something about this.

Everybody else Bamu had consulted said, “Just cut ’em down!” I suppose my name came up because I have broader perspective on what you can do with fruit trees.

In the fruit growing country east of the Cascades, orchardists routinely re-work big fruit trees, but in urban Portland this is scarcely heard of. Nobody knows anything but “Cut it down!”

In commercial orchards, this would be a huge economic waste. There is no need to completely remove trees, then plant new trees, then wait years, or decades, till they get to bearing size. Instead, trees are re-worked.

If one variety of, say, apple goes out of fashion, an orchard will “change” all the trees in a block to a more popular kind. Workers go through, cutting off the limbs and grafting the new variety onto the stubs.

This amounts to a rather severe pruning. When the trees grow back out, the new limbs are from the grafts, and therefore bear the new type of fruit. The trees can be in full production again in only a few years.

graphic, re-working a tree


This diagram is simplified. In practice, the grafting is done at a particular time of year, not when the host tree has fruit. The illustration is to show the change of fruit variety.

The cutting back can be to any degree. One extreme is to put a great many grafts out on all the small branches. This is of course very labor intensive. The other extreme is cutting the tree off to a stump, and grafting on to that stump. This requires the minimal number of grafts. Orchards generally do the larger limbs, or stump, to control costs.

Orchards are already controlling the size of their trees, so the primary reason for re-work is to change the fruit variety. In urban areas, on the other hand, tree size is a major issue. Often, fruit trees have been let to grow for years, with little thought. When they start to bear, all the fruit is way out of reach.

Part of my proposed re-work of the Bamu trees was to control their size. Cherry trees naturally grow very tall, one of the largest types of fruit trees. The use of “dwarfing” rootstocks is now widespread. Trees grafted onto such roots grow to only a fraction of the standard size.

A variant of that is “interstem”. The tree starts on a sturdy rootstock, not necessarily dwarfing. Then, the dwarfing moiety is grafted on, then the desired variety is grafted onto that. The section of dwarfing stem between the roots and the top causes the whole tree to be dwarfed.

graphic, interstem

Standard, dwarf, and interstem

In the case of the Bamu trees, the roots were what they were. I thought of trying an interstem so that when the trees re-grew, they would fruit at smaller size. Otherwise, varietal cherry grafted onto this seedling rootstock would grow to just as large a size as before.

The appropriate technique for grafting onto a large cut stem is the bark graft. This video shows exactly how to do it.

I made this video on request from my niece’s husband, Ryan. In the Southeast, where they live, there is a widely planted ornamental, the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana). Birds spread the small inedible berrylike fruits, and Callery pears come up everywhere.

Ryan had a big such tree at the new house they bought, and asked me if it could be grafted to edible pears. I couldn’t visit at the time of year to do it myself, so I made the video. Ryan followed the video, and now has ‘Avers’ pear growing on the Callery pear stump.

bark graft

Desirable ‘Ayers’ pear bark-grafted onto Callery pear stump

Pear trees, like cherry trees, want to grow big. Even though Ryan’s pear tree is no longer a trunk towering up to the sky, it is still a challenge to control the size. Thus, the idea of the dwarfing interstem on the Bamu cherry trees.

I mapped out a plan where the trees would be cut off to stumps. Then scions of a dwarfing cherry would be bark-grafted on. This would be in the second week of April, the correct time for bark grafting.

These bark-grafted dwarf cherry scions would grow out and serve as the interstem.

graphic, tree re-work plan

Plan to re-work trees

When the interstem had grown sufficiently, varietal cherry would be grafted on. These grafts would be bud grafts, done the second week of July.

So the varietal cherry would be in place within one growing season. Then it would be a matter of re-shaping the trees for productivity.

However, there were other considerations. The community at Bamu had been using the large cherry trunks as hammock supports, and the area had a fire circle which was a social focal point. They wanted to keep the hammocks. Even if the tree tops were taken off, they would like to have the trunks remain, to build some sort of pavilion.

graphic, other uses

Other uses

The discussion went back and forth. There was the idea of cutting off the trunks higher, perhaps to six feet, or ten feet, and grafting on top there. I pointed out that growth from grafts grows upward, and so all the fruit would again be out of reach.

Then came the idea of notching in the bases of the trunks, to “separate” the upper section, and get the bases to behave as if they were cut stumps. I explained this could effectively act as girdling the trees, and they might die.

graphic of notches and grafts

Compromise, graft onto notched trunks

Still, with all considerations, we settled on this compromise and decided to try it. At worst, the trees would die, which was no worse than the original “Cut ’em down!” proposal. And we would learn something.

On March 20, an arborist topped the cherry trees, and notched them at the base.

notched bases of cherry trees

Notches at base

tall trunks notched at base

Topped trunks of notched trees

On April 11, I bark grafted the trees. I used scions of a rather strongly dwarfing cherry rootstock. Trees on this rootstock can be kept to 15 feet in height.

bark graft

Individual bark graft

On the south tree I put 28 grafts, the middle tree 22, and the north tree 27. This amounted to grafts every few inches around the circumference.

People at the community were interested and curious. “Why so many?” they asked, “Do you need that many grafts?”

line of bark grafts

Bark grafts

I explained that I always like to make lots of grafts, to try and get some kind of statistics. Seldom do all of them grow; and if there are lots, you can get an idea why.

For example, if drying out from strong sun causes them to fail, I would expect to see it more on the south side of the trunks and not on the north. If by some chance they do all grow, you can choose the best.

Arne was proceeding with taking the bark off the upper trunks, but it was slow going. As an idea, it hadn’t seemed too hard, but when it came time to actually do it, working so far off the ground was awkward and strenuous.

Also, the bark was not peeling as readily as I was used to. Bark peels easily, or “slips” when the cambium cells are actively growing. The trees seemed compromised, in that the cambium had not become as vigorous as on a healthy tree that time of year.

On April 28, some of the grafts looked promising. People in the community were hopeful the grafts would take. “We’re rooting for them!” Unfortunately, trees have to root for themselves.

bark graft showing some leaves

Bud growth

I was already doubtful the grafts would succeed. I look for vigorous generation of new leaves, not just unfolding of existing ones, as seen here. I thought it was a false start, the scions surviving on stored moisture, and what water could diffuse in from the stock below.

The hammocks were back up, and I could see how much the community loved them. I was a little concerned the grafts might get knocked by activity around them; but, well, there were lots of grafts. It’s always statistics. It would have been a mistake to cut the trees off to the ground. This experiment was worth a try.

By May 24, it was clear the grafts had failed. Arne had not been able to keep up with de-barking the upper trunks. I doubt this would have made much difference.

bark grafts not alive

Failed bark grafts

I noticed the de-barked trunks were wet with sap, to the extent some mold was growing on them. This indicated the roots were still “seeing” the upper trunks as alive, and so the roots were expending their strength to support them.

A check on July 17 showed some growth from above the de-barked area. This was the worst of signs. I meant the work was essentially behaving as a girdle. The tree was continuing to try to keep the top alive, at the expense of further exhausting the roots.

trunk showing shoot growth

Shoot growth above de-barked area

I believe this was the major factor. Minor factors could have been:

  • The initial cutting on the trees was three weeks before time to do the bark grafts. Usually, scions are inserted immediately as the limbs are cut, before the ends can dry back or the plant cells otherwise reorganize.
  • It could have been the time of year. Whereas apples are very reliable to graft in spring, cherries are less so. If this were the major factor, though, at least a few of the grafts should have grown.
  • Normally, after bark grafting, the entire cut end of the limb is sealed over to prevent water loss, and make maximum moisture available to the grafted scions. Here, since the trunk was only notched there was no way to seal over the end.
tall stump

Tall trunks did not live

The cherry trees have died. The Bamu community is going ahead with planning to construct a pavilion, using the dead trunks as support. The formerly shaded sections of the orchards are expected to be more productive.

compact plant

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Bonsai your wax vine

You can “bonsai” a wax vine, for a compact house plant.

Wax vine (Hoya carnosa) makes a good house plant, tolerant of low light and neglectful watering. However, its natural growth form is an extensive vine. If you’ve got room for that, it’s fine.

Here we have one in the bathroom. Notice that it’s also tolerant of being potbound. All that vine, growing out of a small flowerpot.

long wax vine

On bathroom shelf

Of course it would have long since toppled off the shelf, except it’s guyed up by strings. The anchors are those stick-anywhere hooks.

view showing flowers

Side view

The flowers are nice. We would be glad to have more of these plants, but no room for another big vine.

Wax vine is easy to propagate by cuttings. We started a cutting in another small pot.

A wax vine plant grows in spurts. It sits there a long time, gathering strength. Then one day, a vine shoots out. If you let it, it’ll grow six feet or more.

Instead, every time a shoot grew out one node, we pinched off the tip.

shoot with tip pinched off

Shoot pinched after one node of growth

Most plants, If their leaves are not allowed to develop early on, those leaves die. However, wax vine has the ability to keep new leaves small, and then later enlarge them to full size, weeks, months or even years later.

In the picture below, these new leaves are the two small fingerlike structures above and below the pinched-off stem tip.

pinched tip

Pinched tip budding

The part hanging down is the beginning of a flower cluster.

By stopping growth at the pinch, the plant’s strength “builds up” there. Usually, after a time, growth resumes by enlarging the leaves and making flowers. Below is a picture of the flower buds, further along.

partially grown flower buds

Flower buds developing

Finally, they bloom. Don’t pinch off wax vine flower clusters as they fade. The down-curving stalk of the cluster will stay alive. Later, it will make a new flush of buds on the same spur, and bloom again.

wax vine flowers


By pinching this way, the whole plant stays most compact.

compact plant

Compact plant

strawberries staying clean on top of bricks

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Garden idea: grow strawberries between bricks

A strawberry patch is great, but a couple problems crop up:

  • Strawberry plants don’t stay in tidy rows. They multiply by runners, till soon you have a tangle. This makes it hard to walk without stepping on the plants — and the berries.
  • The berries tend to rest on the ground where they are prone to dirt, rot, and slugs.
  • Weeds come in between the strawberry plants. They crowd the strawberries and compete for moisture. If the weeds grow tall, they shade the strawberry plants, and cut their production.

Growing strawberry plants in the cracks between bricks solves these problems, and more.

diagram of strawberry plants between bricks

The basic diagram

One key idea of growing strawberries, which I did not know at first, is this: Strawberry plants get old. Say a new plant gets started from a runner. The following year, that plant will bear the most flowers and fruit it will ever have. After that, it will decline. So, for sustainable strawberries, you need to have new plants coming each year, replacing the old.

There are various ways to do this:

  • You can do like commercial strawberry growers: Plow up the whole field each year, nix all the old plants, and re-plant with newly bought starts.
  • Do like they did on my grandma’s farm: Move the strawberry bed every couple years. The family had a general notion a strawberry patch would “run out” after a few years. This was simply the site getting too thick with weeds and unproductive old plants, leaving little space for the new. The answer was to just dig up some of the plants and put them in new ground. This works well if you have a family farm, and kids for the chores.
  • Do like we did at my mom’s yard in Alabama.  There was lawn to mow, and we would dump piles of grass clippings on the strawberry patch. This would smother and kill the plants direct hit. But, in that heat, the grass piles would soon molder into the ground. New runners would colonize the bare spots, so there were always young productive plants. This works well in a hot climate, where you have extensive lawn to mow.
  • Roto-till your intended strawberry plot, and set a stripe of plants along one edge. Next year, roto-till those; but by now they will have spawned a population of progeny a few feet out beside them, from runners. This year, those will be your productive plants. Keep “chasing” the strawberries back and forth across the ground. This works well where you have fine soil you can easily roto-till — and of course a roto-tilller.
  • Grow strawberries in a strawberry jar. Each year, clear out the plants from half the holes. Then train a runner from one of the remaining plants so it starts a new individual in the vacated hole.

With all these in mind, I came up with the brick method. I’d had an old chimney removed, for earthquake safety, It was no longer serving any purpose now that I had a new high-efficiency furnace. So, I had lots of bricks.

overview of brickwork and plants

Overview of the brickwork pattern, with strawberry plants

I laid the bricks out on the ground with finger-width spaces between. I just put them in rows,, but I could have done herringbone, or anything. I planted a few strawberry plants in between.

This was a part of the garden that used to be muddy all winter. To go through there, I needed boards, for catwalks. Even these would gradually squish into the ground. Now, the brickwork provided an easy walking surface. No more mud.

strawberries staying clean on top of bricks

Most strawberries rest on top of the bricks, and stay clean

In due season, the strawberry plants had berries. It was easy to step around among them, on the bricks. The fruit, for the most part, rested on the bricks, keeping up out of the dirt.

This same winter-muddy area would get very dry in summer. Now, the bricks acted like rock mulch, and held in more of the soil moisture.

In their usual way, the strawberry plants sent out runners. These would tend to nestle into the spaces between the bricks, and start new plants there. Sometimes I would help them a bit, nudge them where I wanted them to go. But for the most part, the strawberries took care of themselves.

There were not many weeds because, well, 90% or more of the surface was brick. About the only thing that will grow on bricks is moss.

This has been going on about eight years now. The old plants seem to die off naturally on their own. When a strawberry plants lives into its third, fourth year and beyond, it lays over on the ground and forms a short, creeping stem that roots from the new part, while the old part gets ratty. This can happen on flat ground. However, in my brick bed, the old plants try to “climb out” of their crack, and lose contact with the soil. Then, they naturally dry up, and make room for the new ones.

My brick bed is June-bearing strawberries. These produce a single crop, in spring and early summer. Then, no more berries till next year. This means I seldom have to water the bed. The winter and spring moisture, from the rain, brings in the crop. Then, the area dries out, too dry to get good berries, but the plants are not trying to make berries anyway, so it does not matter. It’s still not as dry as it used to get, before the bricks. The plants tough it out on the residual moisture until the rains come back in the fall.

A brick bed like this would have a lot of the same advantages for ever-bearing strawberries, but you would need to water them through the summer to keep on getting berries. Too dry would mean small, deformed berries, or none at all.


milkweed flowers closeup

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Germinating milkweed seeds

Is there any other flower people plant in their garden hoping the bugs will eat it? To encourage monarch butterflies, many people want to grow the caterpillar host plant, milkweed.

milkweed flower heads

milkweed stalks

I never thought there was anything to it. When I lived in Colorado, a milkweed seed floated into my garden one day, germinated, and set about its usual program of taking over the world.

milkweed spreading through a garden

Yet, here in Portland, many people have told me of failure. “I got the seeds, but they never grew!” So, when some milkweed seeds came into my hands last fall, I decided to see what I could figure out.

ripe milkweed pod, just opening

I was on a garden tour of a native plant nursery. There was a just-ripened pod of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) on the drying stalk. The owner said I could have it. People on the tour were asking how to germinate the seed, and others were clambering “Cold stratify! Cold stratify!”

Now, I have been “cold stratify”-ing seeds since I was a teenager, and think nothing of it. But I have come to realize that for a lot of people, it’s beyond their ken. “Cold stratify” is technically redundant. Stratify means cold, as see this blog.

I had my doubts about milkweed. It’s typically a summer-ripened seed. A lot of summer annuals have a simple germination requirement of dry storage. If the seeds sprouted as soon as they got ripe they wouldn’t have much growing season left, plus, lots of competition from adult plants. So, the seeds have an internal inhibition of germination when they are fresh, which fades over time.

Even though milkweed is perennial rather than annual, I wondered if it might be the same. It sure would be easier if people could forget about stratification! So, this was my hypothesis. That milkweed seeds just needed a period of dry storage to grow. To test it, I would do a series of germination assays, over a period of months, and see what changed.

Cut to the chase. I was wrong. The seeds germinated right away. There was some variation over the months, but probably random. I just put the seeds at about 85°F, and voilà! Milkweed seedlings.

The 85°F temperature was my standard growth chamber, where I was already growing other things. Maybe it was luck.

A good germination test, to be statistically valid, ought to use 100 seeds. My milkweed pod only held about 150 seeds total. So I compromised, and did smaller tests of ten seeds each month (I skipped February). This means the results are more prone to random variation. Still, we learned something.

I germinated the seeds in what I call a “standard germination test setup”, a paper towel rolled around a chopstick, as in this blog. I checked the setup every night, and as soon as a seed put out a root, I planted it in potting soil. Then I later gave the seedlings away.

milkweed seed with root coming out

root can emerge, up to the length of the seed, in one day

milkweed seedling in plug tray

seedling planted

Incidentally, I found I could keep the seedlings in “suspended animation” by putting them in a sunny window in my unheated garage through the winter. They seemed to remain healthy, but stopped their pesky growth! The picture is of three batches started a month apart. Not growing, but unfazed by the cold. What a magnificent weed!

seedlings inside garage window

seedlings in unheated garage, in winter

Below is a chart of the total germination by month. If I’d had enough seeds for good tests, the counts might not have shown any variation at all. Still, germination was never less than 50%.

chart of germination percent by month

total germination by month

The chart of germination speed is even less instructive. Sometimes they started soon, sometimes after a delay. Sometimes they came up quick, sometimes drawn out. But not really over that much variation. Germination usually started the 4th day (rarely 3rd). No more seeds ever germinated after the 12th day.

chart of germination by elapsed days

rates of germination

All too much science never reports negative results. So here I admit, my hypothesis did not pan out. My experiment did not show anything about how to enhance milkweed seed germination. However, it clearly disproves “Cold stratify!”

Now, it is just possible this particular milkweed lost its chill requirement from being in cultivation. This is how it could work. There is always variation in plants. Suppose there were a big batch of wild-collected milkweed seeds, brought into a nursery to grow. Suppose, within those thousands, there were a few freak seeds that did not need any cold period to grow, while all the others did. Those few would be first to sprout. If the nursery person pounced on those, grew them out, and further propagated them, he/she might soon have a strain of milkweed that, genetically, did not need “cold stratify” while wild milkweed does. This is how a lot of crop seeds, such as beans and corn, have evidently lost any wild-type germination inhibition.

If you ever find wild milkweed with enough seeds, you can do your own tests. Cold treat one batch, don’t treat another, and then write your own blog!

Meanwhile, if you just want to get some milkweed growing, try planting your seeds at warm temperatures, and see what you get.

Asclepias speciosa

Here’s my original data, in case you want to check if it was the phase of the moon, or something!

start date count date count
10/6/2019 10/9/2019 1
10/6/2019 10/12/2019 3
10/6/2019 10/13/2019 4
10/6/2019 10/14/2019 5
11/6/2019 11/13/2019 3
11/6/2019 11/14/2019 4
11/6/2019 11/16/2019 6
11/6/2019 11/17/2019 8
12/6/2019 12/11/2019 1
12/6/2019 12/12/2019 3
12/6/2019 12/13/2019 6
1/6/2020 1/10/2020 3
1/6/2020 1/11/2020 6
1/6/2020 1/12/2020 7
1/6/2020 1/13/2020 8
1/6/2020 1/14/2020 9
3/6/2020 3/10/2020 2
3/6/2020 3/11/2020 6
3/6/2020 3/12/2020 7
3/6/2020 3/13/2020 8
4/6/2020 4/10/2020 5
4/6/2020 4/11/2020 9
5/6/2020 5/10/2020 1
5/6/2020 5/11/2020 4
5/6/2020 5/12/2020 5
5/6/2020 5/13/2020 6
5/6/2020 5/14/2020 7
5/6/2020 5/16/2020 9
6/6/2020 6/11/2020 1
6/6/2020 6/12/2020 4
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grape leaf and portion of oats before rolling

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Toscan oatmeal dolmas

Don’t expect these dolmas to taste like the usual Mediterranean grape leaf rolls. They’re a sensation all to themselves.

Grape leaf cuisine can be a way for the modern gardener to eat more seasonal greens. Grape leaves are perfectly edible alone. If you taste one, you’ll find it pleasantly tart, but a bit dry and fibrous. They need a rich, volumous filling to help chew.

Grape leaves come in May and early June when other greens can be scarce. The winter greens have finished, but the summer plants not yet big. I say “come” because grape greens may literally fall off the vine.

Grape plants are not very intelligent. Sometimes they put out shoots into open air, where there is nothing for support.

upright unsupported grape shoots

Grape shoots growing straight up.

When these shoots get too long, they snap off, yielding yard-long strings of tender grape leaves.

grape shoot that snapped off the vine

First you catch your grape leaves.

The ancient Toscans would have scoffed at the idea of buying brined grape leaves, instead making use of this windfall. Rather than letting the goats eat them up, the frugal Toscans invented oatmeal dolmas.

The ancient Toscans, a seafaring people, were in trade contact with the Scottish Isles, mainly because they liked the music. Naturally, they would also borrow from the cuisine. The Toscans didn’t have time to go out and buy fifteen different spices (especially when they were seafaring). Instead of an elaborate Mediterranean style dish, which takes all day, they came up with the simplest grape leaf rolls — oatmeal.

The word “dolma”, from the Turkish verb “dolmak”, means “to be filled,” However, in Toscan, “dolma” is a euphemism for, “Stop whining and eat! There are starving children in Scotland”.

How to:
Make a batch of oatmeal. Size depends on how many grape leaves you have.

bowl of cooked oatmeal

Don’t skimp on the goodies.

It’s especially good with raisins and lots of nuts.

grape leaf and portion of oats before rolling

Big leaf, little leaf, eat more greens.

Put a portion on the base of a grape leaf, and roll it up. If you got your leaves from an actual grape vine, there will be bigger leaves and smaller ones. The small ones are of course too small to make their own dolmas. You can tuck a small leaf inside a larger one, to help fill any holes.

rolled up dolma

Rolled up!

You don’t need to blanch the leaves or anything. Just roll them up. Then, put them in an InstantPot, with a little water, and pressure cook for 20 minutes. That’s all there is to it.

dolmas in InstantPot

A small test batch, for breakfast.

It is not known how the ancient Toscans cooked these dolmas, before the modern InstantPot, perhaps the radioactive hot springs that dot the Toscan landscape.

grape bud clusters

You can add the tender bits for an added treat.

Each oatmeal dolma will make one or two bites. The tartness of the grape leaf is reminiscent of fruit. Be sure to eat them outdoors, preferably overlooking the sea.


grape hyacinths in bloom

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Taming grape hyacinths

To keep grape hyacinths from taking over your yard, plant them in a few inches of soil on top of concrete.

grape hyacinths in bloom

Grape hyacinths

Grape hyacinths (Muscari species) are charming spring bulbs. The “grape” in the name presumably refers to their small balloon-like flowers that grow in clusters that resemble upside down bunches of grapes.

detail of flowers

Flower cluster

However, these little plants can be too much of a good thing. Below is a picture of them taking over somebody’s yard.

plants in lawn

Grape hyacinths taking over a lawn.

When I bought my house, there were numerous clumps of grape hyacinth spreading through the garden. When conditions are good, grape hyacinths can multiply rapidly. Below ground, new small bulbs bud off old ones. Above ground, they scatter seeds. Where they become abundant, the soil can be a nearly solid mass of bulbs!

Be careful digging them out. Any scattered dirt can spread them around. I managed to beat them back to manageable numbers by lifting out chunks of soil and literally cooking it in a glass bowl in an old microwave oven.

Now, I enjoy grape hyacinths in moderation. Prevention is better than cure. That means making sure their growing conditions are, well, not so good. It’s helpful to understand the ecology of bulbs.

Our familiar spring garden bulbs evolved to survive through an inhospitable part of the year, usually a dry summer. Also, lack of sunlight for photosynthesis, such as under trees that leaf out and cast a dense shade. During this off season, the entire life of the plant is in the bulb. There are no stems, flowers, leaves or even roots. In this state, bulbs are remarkably resistant to drying out, and to freezing.

tulips blooming

Tulips under a tree that will completely shade them in summer

In the brief time of year when conditions are good, bulbs leap into action. They “spend out their bank account”, rapidly pushing up leaves and flowers. While the good times last, they capture solar energy to create next year’s bulb. As soon as conditions worsen, the plants shut down operations, and retreat back into bulbs. If the overall balance sheet for the year is positive, the plant shows a profit: A bigger bulb than it started with, a few new side bulbs, or some seeds.

This is why you are advised not to trim off the ratty foliage of, say, your tulips and daffodils, after they have bloomed. The plants need those leaves for photosynthesis, to restock their bulbs.

If you have ever “forced” bulbs, such as paperwhite narcissus, or hyacinths, you can see why they are typically treated as a one-time thing. The bulb has enough “bank account” to flower, and make some leaves. But after that, it’s pretty much broke. The conditions to restock are not there. You had the bulb in water, with none of nutrients it would normally get from soil. It’s in your dimly lighted house, where it can’t photosynthesize. If you do stick it out in the ground, the indoor-adapted leaves sunburn and the water-adapted roots struggle to adjust. If the plant does survive, it retreats to a bulb much smaller than the one it started as.

The Pacific Northwest is heaven for bulbs. In our mild winters, they get started early. After they bloom, they have a long, moist springtime to rake in the photosynthetic profit. Many of them open branch offices. A few tulips or daffodils soon become dozens.

It’s not like that everywhere. I lived for ten years in Colorado, where summer slams down hard. Tulips would bloom, then shrivel in the baking heat. Whether they pulled ahead or fell behind would be a matter of microsite. For example, on the north side of a fence, the soil was shaded and stayed a little more moist. In spring, tulips would stay alive long enough to replenish their bulb, plus store up a bit extra. Each year, there would be more blossoms. But on the south side of that same fence, tulips would slowly fail. They dried down early. In a year or two, they stopped blooming, only put up leaves. The leaves got smaller every year. Unless rescued, they would finally die.

Incidentally, here’s a trick to rescue bulbs, or just move them when they are in the best stage to move, namely completely dormant. Maybe you think you’ll remember where they are. But lo! Those lush blooms and foliage disappear without a trace. It’s midsummer, and the ground is hard and dry. Maybe you poke around with a trowel, and occasionally stab one of the bulbs, and cut it in two. How can they hide so well? Next spring, there they are back again, blooming. But at that stage, it is very stressful on them to be moved.

crocuses with marker

Crocuses marked for moving

Here’s the trick. When the bulbs are blooming, slip a bamboo skewer down beside each stem. A package of 100 costs only a few dollars. If you accidentally poke into a bulb, it does little harm. Then, just wait for summer. The skewers look significantly different from anything else likely to be in your garden that time of year. The ground is dry. Just tunnel down by each skewer, and there is your bulb. If you want to sort out different kinds of bulbs, make up a barcode, and mark each skewer with a grease pencil (all other kinds of ink fade away). Say, one band means yellow, two means purple, and so on.

Different kinds of bulbs are more and less aggressive, and grape hyacinths are the toughest ones I know. Take note: Grape hyacinths start pushing up new leaves after the first rains of late summer. So, they are in business months before anybody else! No wonder they multiply like mad.

grape hyacinth leaves

Growing after a single summer rain

So here’s the method to control them. Put a few inches of soil on top of bare concrete. Use the worst soil you have. Plant grape hyacinth bulbs in that.

planting diagram

Plant bulbs in only a few inches of soil

In the winter rains, the bulbs will grow. In spring they will bloom.

plants flowering in the spring

Plants flower in the spring

But as soon as the rains slack off, the season’s over. The minimal soil dries out, and the plants go dormant. They do not get to spend the long luxurious spring months drawing moisture from the subsoil, to increase themselves, and bud off side buds and make seeds.

bulbs going dormant

Bulbs go dormant when rains end

They just about break even. They will sleep all summer, and be back next spring.

Here’s an actual planting done this way. The concrete steps run right over to the adjacent concrete foundation. There is no other soil. (This photo is from late March.)

bulbs planted on steps

Planting, on concrete steps

The large straplike leaves mixed in are tulips. The tulips produce leaves every year, but have not been able to make enough headway to bloom.

In May, as things dry out, the grape hyacinth plants are packing away everything they have into their bulbs. They do not have the resources to even try making many seeds. In the photo below, notice how few pods there are. Some of these are not even filled. If the stalks do manage to ripen a few seeds, they are stranded out on the concrete, not likely to fall any place they can grow.

grape hyacinth pods

Pods are sparse

A similar method, using the same principle, is to confine grape hyacinths to pots. These look pretty good when in full bloom. They fill out, and don’t even look like potted plants.

plants in a pot

Showy blooms

Put they are entirely in pots.

blooming plants in a pot

Entirely in a pot

I have a line of these pots set, again, on top of concrete, up under an overhanging eve. They get only the rain that drifts in on them during the winter. They provide some welcome spring color, then die back and disappear for the rest of the year.

They start growing as early as September. These started after an anomalous August rain.

sprouts in a pot

Grape hyacinths sprouting after a single summer rain

There are some other flowers I treat in a similar way. I grow them where they can barely survive.

This is Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis).

Kenilworth ivy plants

Kenilworth ivy

Here, I have it on a mossy concrete block in the midst of, you guessed it, an expanse of concrete. It gets a little drip irrigation overspray during the summer, but not much. This plant is so invasive, I don’t let it get anywhere near topsoil! Even this little patch of it, I come along periodically and rip half of it out.

This is the annual forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica).

forget-me-not plants


Yes, they have pretty blue flowers in the spring, but each plant can make thousands of seeds. Here, I’m letting it root where it can, in chinks at the base of a concrete block wall. These blocks are not on the soil, but on top of (somewhat dirty) outdoor carpet. The plants manage to snake their roots down enough to grow and bloom. But they die when the weather turns dry. Even so, they still make more than I want, and I weed out the extras,

two-year cycle of fig pruning


Growing figs in the Pacific Northwest

Although fig trees are widely planted in the Pacific Northwest they really are marginal here. Knowing how they grow will let you get the most out of them.

Fig trees often bear two crops, an early “breba” crop; and then, after a gap, a later crop. In real fig country, which means hot climates like the Southeast, the Southwest, or the central valley of California, the breba crop is considered inferior, and is often disregarded. However, in the Northwest, cooler temperatures make everything develop more slowly. Here, the later “main” crop may not have time to ripen, or may just start before autumn chill brings it to a close. For this reason, the fig varieties that are most satisfactory in the Northwest are those that have a good breba crop. That means fairly abundant and with quality.

Let’s look at how a fig tree has these two crops.

Below is a fig branch, pictured in mid-October. This is a variety named “Negronne”, a good one for the Pacific Northwest.

Fig branch, mid October

Fig branch, mid October

The next picture is the same twig with the leaves cut off to better show the figs.

leaves cut to show figs

leaves cut to show figs

The three largest dark figs labeled “A” are this year’s crop. More precisely, they are the “late” crop, which would be the “main” crop in a more typical fig climate. Here in the temperate Northwest, they are just on the point of barely getting ripe, now at the very end of the warm weather.  As soon as the weather cools off, figs stop ripening. Incidentally, it sometimes works to pick marginal figs like this and bring them indoors to a warm place, and they will get sweet.

The several medium sized greenish figs labeled “B” are next up along the twig. These figs have been developing, and in a typical hot fig climate would have long since ripened. However, barring an unprecedented heat wave, the cool October weather here in the Northwest will bring their growth to a stop. In some varieties of figs, such as “Brown Turkey”, the chilly weather of November will make these half-grown figs all fall off. In others, like Negronne, they may bravely hang on. Perhaps in a miraculously mild winter, half-grown figs like this may make it through to spring, and ripen up. Almost always, however, freezing weather kills them, and they are lost.

Label “C” marks tiny nubbins of figs, at the bases of the uppermost leaves. Since they are still dormant and undeveloped, they can make it through the winter. Occasionally, we have extreme winter weather in the Pacific Northwest, which kills fig trees to the ground. That’s a whole different story, which I’ll talk about later.

breba buds at bases of leaves

Breba buds, in late summer

Usually, however, these upper buds do just fine. When the tree leafs out next spring, they will enlarge into green figs, then ripen as the breba crop. Here in Portland, my Negronne brebas ripen during about two weeks in late July and early August. Other varieties are somewhat earlier or later, but it’s a midsummer crop.

Meanwhile, a new shoot will be growing out from the end of last year’s twig. At the base of most leaves, a fig bud will form. During the summer, some of these, mostly starting from the bottom of the twig, will enlarge, hoping to become figs. On Negronne, the earliest of these seldom ripens before the second week of September. Other varieties vary, but it’s a fall crop. In a cold, wet September, you may get very few.

Breba buds expand rapidly after bud break, and this can lead to some confusion about what’s going on. Structurally, fig fruits are shoots, odd inside-out shoots with many tiny flowers inside. They get the same growth push in spring as the new leafy shoots. So, breba buds quickly expand, in March and April, to full-sized green figs. Then, they just sit there for months, waiting for hot weather they need to ripen.

During this same time, the new current-year shoot expands some of its own fig buds. As the picture below shows, by early summer the new crop figs may be of comparable size to the breba figs. The only way you might know for sure the lowermost fig is a breba is that fact that it does not have a leaf stalk below it. Its leaf fell of the year before while it was still a bud.

twig showing both breba and new crop figs

Twig in early July

Finally, in the heat of summer, the breba figs ripen. When fully ripe, they hang soft and floppy on their stems. Ripe figs show no milky juice on the broken end when you pick them.

Try to get them at the peak of perfection. As one writer put it, ripe figs can not be had “for love or money” when out of season. But if they do get away from you and dry on the tree, they are still at least as good as dried figs you would buy. They lose flavor, but keep sweetness — at least till they rot in the rain.

ripe breba fig below green new-crop figs

Ripe breba fig

The new-crop figs, though they may look close to ready, are going to just sit there hard and green for weeks longer. Here in our mild Northwest climate, these main-crop figs tease us. In late summer a fig tree may appear “loaded” with these. In fact, fewer than half may ever get ripe. The ones with the latest start will simply run out of warm weather, and abort as winter comes on.

In a more typical hot fig climate, everything would be accelerated. The breba crop would flush in the first hot weather. The main crop would be pumping out by midsummer. In the long hot season, many current year figs would ripen.

numerous unripe new-crop figs

New-crop figs in late summer

Here in the Northwest, even main-crop figs that got an early start are prone the numerous problems. In cool, cloudy September weather, their ripening signals may get crossed. They may decide it’s time to drop before they ever get sweet.

unripe figs cracking loose from stem

Unripe figs falling due to cool weather.

Long rains after a dry spell can make figs split. Then, they most often rot.

figs splitting

September rain can make figs split

Some Northwest fig varieties ripen their main crop all in a flush, in only a few autumn weeks. If one of these weeks is a week of rain, most of your crop may split or rot. Rain can also simply fill the figs up with moisture, so they are watery and bland.

To sum up: In real fig country, brebas are considered inferior, and attention goes to the later main crop. Here, the brebas are the best you’re likely to get. They ripen in our warmest, sunniest time of year. Our main crop is not ready till sunshine wanes, and the rains return. If we don’t have a warm, balmy autumn, our main crop is inferior.

So, the trick of getting figs in the Pacific Northwest is to have breba buds. Equally important is to have them low enough to reach. Notice that figs only appear on new growth. As a tree grows, that new growth is higher each year. Within several years, practically all the figs are high in the sky, where nobody gets them but the wasps and the birds. To prevent this, you have to prune; but how to prune is based on understanding the breba crop.

Below is a simplified diagram of fig growth.

Step “1” is in winter. The dormant breba buds are towards the upper end of the bare twig. The dotted line shows “reach height”, the upper limit of where you can reach while standing on the ground. If your fig tree is not this way, we’ll talk later about how to get it to be.

two-year cycle of fig pruning

two-year cycle of fig pruning

Reach height will vary by you. It would be chest height, plus a foot or two, maybe seven or eight feet maximum. Figs are not very satisfactory to harvest by ladder. The fruit ripens scattered all over the tree, so you would have to move the ladder for every fig or two. The trees are seldom strong enough to climb, to the fruit bearing limbs. Therefore, you want figs you can reach while standing on the ground.

Step “2” shows next summer. The breba buds have developed into ripe figs. The twig has extended by new growth. That’s the part that has leaves. Fig buds appear at the bases of these leaves, and some of them may develop into the late crop.

Step “3” shows the next winter. Leaves are gone, as well as any late crop figs. The buds that will be next years brebas are out on the tip. Notice two things. These are now way above reach height. Or if they are barely reachable by pulling the branches down, they will be far beyond in another year. Also, this branch will never have any more fruit low down. Never.

So, you have to prune this branch off. Yes, you are losing the potential brebas up there, but you would not be able to reach them anyway. You don’t want to cut back the branch only to reach height, but considerably below that.

Step “4” shows what happens. Next summer, the cut end re-sprouts. It forms figs in the leaf axils, and some of these may ripen into the late crop. Next winter, you will be back to step “1”. If you hadn’t cut back to well below reach height, this new growth, and those breba buds, would be up high.

This simplified diagram ignores any branching. That would mostly be in step “3”, starting at or above reach height. The story is the same. The breba buds would be all out of reach, and ever more so as the years went by. The only figs you would ever get would be from the occasional branch that curved outward low down. Branches that grow up in the interior of the tree are shaded, and have few fruits.

Notice that each individual branch is on a two-year cycle. It has to grow for a year, in which it will only bear late crop figs. Then, the next summer, when it ripens brebas, it will be growing too tall. You let it grow that season, in case it does ripen some late crop figs. Then you cut it off.

Here’s a detail that will pay you back. When you cut off a sizable fig branch, it tends to re-sprout a thicket of shoots, many of them thin and wispy. Only robust shoots, about finger-thickness or more, have the strength to produce figs. If you take the trouble to rub off all the extra shoots, and leave only a few to grow, these will be stronger, and give you figs sooner. Otherwise, the many shoots will all crowd each other, and remain thin.

branch showing thin shoots removed

Rub off weak shoots so only a few strong ones grow

Think of the fig twigs as individual plants in a garden. Rule of thumb: Thin them to at least a foot apart. Make room for sunshine to get in between.

Fruit gets sweet when the sun hits it. This does not make logical sense, since it’s leaves that photosynthesize and make sugar, not the fruit itself. But there it is. On the same tree, the fruit in the sun tastes best, while the shaded ones are second rate.

So, how do you actually manage a fig tree, to make it grow on this 1-2-3-4 cycle? There are various ways. You may be starting a new tree from cuttings. You may be planting a potted tree. You may be rehabilitating an old tree that has grown too big. I’ll talk about all these.

To start a new fig tree from cuttings, I have found it easiest to just put (about) three cuttings in the ground where I want the tree. On average, one of them will grow. Often, the cutting that grows is not the one you expected would grow, but you’ll usually get one. One is enough, then you’ve got your tree started. If more than one grows, just pull out the extras.

To plant the cuttings, I simply bury them in winter, most of the way in the soil, with only the tip sticking out. There are many other ways to grow fig cuttings advertised online. Most of these are from warmer climates more suited to figs. For example, rooting the cuttings in water probably works in a hot climate, but around here they mostly rot.

If you know anyone with a fig tree, they will certainly have lots of cuttings available from pruning. If a fig tree has a branch that curves down and then back up, it will have a strong tendency to root from the bottom of that curve. This is especially so if the curve is low enough to touch the ground. If left long enough, roots will grow from that touch point, and extend the fig tree into a multi-rooted patch. You can dig up these rooted branches and have a for-sure fig tree.

When growing a new tree from cuttings, one style is to make it branch about every foot. Below is a picture of one I am starting this way. This is the variety “Desert King”, the most reliably fruiting in the Northwest. Unfortunately, Desert King is a robust grower, with especially long internodes, the spaces between successive leaves along each twig. This means, left to itself, Desert King gets tall even faster than most figs. In only a few years, although it has lots of fruit, all that fruit is high overhead.

small fig tree forced to branch

small fig tree forced to branch

The technique of forcing branching solves this. To make a twig branch, when the section of twig is the length you want, a foot or so, simply cut off the end. Then, typically two or three buds back from the cut will grow, and so the twig has branched. The vigor is now “split” between the branches, and the overall height growth of the plant is slowed. It bushes out instead. If you look closely, you can see that this little tree, barely more than knee height, already has two figs. They are to the lower right.

As each dividing branch goes dormant for the winter, it will have breba buds that will become figs next season. As long as the tree is below reach height, your job is only to keep it branching. Sometimes, you may have to cut off breba buds, but it will be worth it to get the tree properly shaped.

By the time the tree gets to reach height, it will be a spreading “staghorn” or “clump” form. You can shape it flat, like a wall, so you will not have to clamber inside it so much. Some branch ends will inevitably be taller than others. When these are getting above reach height, cut them off as in the 1-2-3-4 diagram. The next year, previously shorter ends will be getting above reach height. You will have different ends in each half of the two year cycle, and therefore figs every year.

Incidentally, Desert King is so reliably fruiting in the Northwest because it’s stingy with current year figs. Left to itself, it grows long shoots each summer, but expands few of the fig buds along these shoots. Next spring, you will see them as big green breba-crop figs on the bare year-old sections of twigs. They don’t get ripe any sooner than other varieties, there are just more of them. In this way, Desert King can provide a significant crop even in the coolest parts of the Pacific Northwest, such as northern Puget Sound and Vancouver Island.

Fig shoots sometimes grow very vigorously. If yours do, you can summer prune, as in the diagram below. Leaves are shown as outlines, to focus on the branch structure. The dotted line is how the shoot would have grown, if not cut back. 

summer pruning

summer pruning

Summer pruning can also increase the number of figs you will get the following season. Breba buds tend to be out on the furthest ends of the twigs. With no summer pruning, you only get one group of these buds, far above reach height. If you summer prune, you can get multiple sets of these buds because you create multiple twig ends.

results of summer pruning

A year later, after this network of twigs has fruited, you would cut off the whole thing back to the stub shown in dark brown.

Over the years, the branches at this level to which you cut back may become like knobby “heads”. This is fine. It is something like the technique of “pollarding”, except in pollarding you cut off all the branches back to the knob. This works in a “real” fig climate, where each year’s new growth gives you main-crop figs. But here in the Northwest, if you were to do that each year, you would never get anything but the late crop, which in our mild climate is unreliable. Instead, you let each shoot grow for two years before cutting it back to the knob. During the first growth year, you can control height by summer pruning, as shown.

Summer pruning is a balance, and Desert King provides a good example. As already mentioned, this variety tends to produce long shoots each summer, apically dominant, so few of the fig buds expand. They wait till next year, and you get breba figs. Summer pruning causes side shoots to develop. Since figs fruits are themselves shoots, some of them also expand, as if to become current-year figs.

For Desert King, current-year figs seldom ripen well. They fall prey to all the vicissitudes of splitting, rotting, wateryness, and early drop. So, summer pruning can make the tree “waste” some of its fruit buds that otherwise would become next year’s brebas. However, in the interest of controlling height and long term shaping of the tree, it’s worth it. Overall, the best plan is to keep the whole structure low enough that all new growth stays below reach height. Again, the 1-2-3-4 diagram.

You may be planting a potted fig tree from a nursery. I see this so often: Someone has brought me in for a consult, and they proudly show off their little fig tree, set to grow upright and stately like a maple. Sometimes, they have even staked up any spreading limbs, to make the growth even more vertical. Sure enough, it will be beautiful, but other things besides figs make better shade trees. Within a few years, no ground-walking creature is going to be able to reach any of the fruit. There are better ways to feed the birds.

Instead of planting your nursery tree upright, try sideways, as in the diagram below. Maybe it seems brutal to lay a tree down, but think about future growth. Very soon, the upright tree will be all above reach height. Horizontal, you have more options.

potted fig planted horizontal

potted fig planted horizontal

This is getting towards what I call “espalier-in-the-air”. People are charmed by little espaliered fruit trees, though the reality is hard to pull off. People think of espaliering apple, pear, or even peach; but somehow never figs. A big factor in these other species is the weight of fruit. A heavy load of, say, apples can literally tear off the branches. For this reason, espaliers of these species require some kind of scaffolding for extra support. Figs, on the other hand, never have high fruit weight. Once you get the branches trained, they support themselves.

Below is a diagram comparing typical espalier with figs. Typical espalier species bear fruit on “spurs”. That is, the growth does not extend much in the process of forming fruit. The fruit appears in pretty much the same place on the limbs year after year. Thus, the multiple tiers. Any upright growth that occurs you mostly cut off to get rid of it.

fig espalier

fig espalier

Figs, on the other hand, have to make extensive growth in order to form fruit buds. If you were to cut off all that growth, you would never get any figs. Each section of this growth is in the two-year cycle explained in the 1-2-3-4 diagram. This growth seldom has any trouble taking up all the space below reach height, so multiple tiers only get in each others way.

In commercial fig plantings, the trees are sometimes trained with four main limbs spread out like a cross on the ground, horizontal and very low. This way, pickers can get to the interior of the tree. You can see how this fits in with maintenance. Workers can cut the upright shoots back as low as convenient. Since these are in “real” fig climates, growers are not particularly interested in the brebas. They can cut the upright shoots right back to those low horizontal limbs in winter, and get plenty of main crop figs the following summer. Here in the Northwest, you would vary that. You would stagger the cutting back, to have some shoots making their first-year growth and setting up their breba buds, while other shoots that grew last year are bearing.

If you look up “fig espalier”, you are likely to see it done in traditional northern European style, flat against a wall. This is not such a good idea. Fig trees get very big roots, which can crack your foundation if planted too close. I  have fig trees along my south wall, but set at least a couple feet out. I  am gradually training them flat, but perpendicular to the wall.  That way I can have more kinds of figs along the same wall. It doesn’t matter if the trees are eventually lopsided, hanging way out over the yard. Fig trees develop very strong roots and seldom topple over.

Below is a picture of one of my fig trees. You might think of it as an informal espalier, or just a shrub. It was given me as a potted sapling, already near six feet tall. I planted it sideways, and that original shoot is to the left. As other branches formed, I curved them out by a combination of pruning and spreading. By keeping the whole thing low, I can reach all the fruit. 

low spreading fig

low spreading fig

Maybe part of your plan for a fig tree is to use it for shade. Well, as we have seen, if you let it grow up as a traditional shade tree, you’ll have that, but at the trade off of never getting any fruit. At least until the rotting figs splat down, wasp infested, in the middle of your picnic. However, you could train your fig as an east-west wall, an “espalier-in-the-air”, and enjoy your summer shade on its north side. You could make it more informal, curved as a “fort” for the kids. Or any number of things, now that you understand fig growth.

Finally, we come to the case of a big old fig tree that has been let to run riot. If I had one of those, this is what I would do. I’d wait till winter, and then cut it off at ground level.

Fig trees are pretty easy to kill, if cut down in summer. They may sprout back a few times, but each time they are pulling heavily on their reserves. With repeated cutting, they soon give up the ghost. I have had to do that a couple times, to get rid of fig varieties that did not prove out in the Northwest climate.

However, if cut in winter, fig trees shoot back up vigorously. If you think about it, this is essentially what happens when we have the rare extreme winter weather here in the Northwest. It freezes fig trees to the ground. Owners are at first appalled, thinking their tree is “dead”. A few years later, they are delighted at having lots of figs. At least till the tree grows too tall again.

There’s no miracle involved. At least half a tree is underground. Take away the top, and the lower half is still there, with nothing on its agenda but to start regenerating the top. Knowing what you know now, you can see that a little judicious training will get your tree back on a system, bearing figs you can pick from ground level for years to come.

restore overgrown fig tree

Restoring an overgrown fig tree

When I restore an overgrown fig tree, I start by cutting it off at ground level, as in step “A”. The stump sprouts back, as shown in step “B”. I remove most of the shoots, but select a few to become the main branches. While these are still pliable, I spread them wide, nearly horizontal to the ground. After they put on some girth, they will stay in position. It may take multiple steps, as the ends try to resume growing straight up, and have to be re-spread. But soon the tree is on the 1-2-3-4 system shown in step “C”. This “espalier-in-the-air” can be flat, if that suits your landscape, or have more main branches like a cross or fan.

Some people recommend buzzing a Northwest fig tree to the ground every 4 or 5 years, or growing it as a clump and periodically chopping out some of the major trunks. You can see how these hacks sort-of work. Any cuts to ground level are going to produce sprouts from ground level. However, since all the growth is concentrated from one point, these sprouts grow very tall. If part of the tree is left, the new sprouts have to stretch even more, fighting to get out of the shade.

You see quotes like, “The shoots grew twenty feet high, and I couldn’t reach the figs!” The writer sounds a little smug; as though their naughty pet managed to thwart all efforts. Evidently, such fig trees emit a force field no human wielding pruning shears may enter. We can but stand by, helpless, all summer, as it slowly towers up and ever upward, to twenty feet.

If the writer had summer pruned, or spread the branches while still pliable, or simply removed the long ones, he/she would have had figs. But then, alas, there would have been no monster story to tell later around the campfire.

Not every shoot grows too tall, and so these hack methods produce some figs, some years. And therefore are considered “success”. I’ve tried to lift the veil of mystery on why they sort-of work. With a bit more finesse, and observing details such as the position of breba buds, you can get figs on a sustained basis, year after year.

I wrote this piece because all over Portland I see fig trees nobody is getting any fruit from, because they have been let to grow up into shade trees. Below is a picture of a young tree in my neighborhood. It’s only twelve feet tall, and had a good crop of figs, but already ninety percent of the fruit is out of reach. Why grow a fruit tree, for no fruit?

fig sapling

Already 90% of figs are out of reach.

What’s ahead for a tree like this? A lifetime of raining rotten figs down on the sidewalk. Maybe the owner finally gets exasperated, and flails at the tree every couple years with pole pruners and chainsaw, pounding it into the shape of, say, a head-high apple tree. Knowing what you know now, how fig trees bear only on new upright growth, you can see that this merely perpetuates the problem.

Maybe the owner hires an arborist. Your arborist is expert at tree health, but he or she would have no way to know any more about fig fruiting than you do. Or did before you read this. If you hire an arborist for your fig tree, have them read this article first.

A question sometimes comes up, whether you can graft figs. A colleague and I in fact tried it. We were able to make it work, but it does not work very well.

It seems the copious flow of latex from cut ends literally “pushes” the grafts apart. We did a large number of grafts, but had only a few “takes”. This proves it’s feasible, but to increase the success rate we would have to find the best technique. We tried a variety of techniques.

grafted fig branch

Fig successfully grafted by side graft

The best appeared to be a side graft, using small scions. It seemed the small scion allowed the sap pressure to be relieved, by pushing out through the hollow core of the stem. (Not literally hollow, but filled with weak spongy pith.)

In practice, there is no real reason to graft figs. All the advantages for other crops don’t apply. Figs have no need for a pollenizer. There are no dwarfing or disease resistant rootstocks. To enjoy more types of figs, just start more trees, but keep them small.

Raccoons have not bothered my figs. Coons destroy all the plums, cherries, and grapes they can get to, so I’m not sure what’s different. Figs are not tart, like these other fruit, so perhaps the raccoons are not interested. Maybe the raccoons can’t easily climb the smooth fig tree bark, or the twigs are too thin. Maybe the figs come and go too quickly for the raccoons to get in the habit. Perhaps it’s because ripe figs don’t have a scent, at least not distinct from the general “coconut” scent of fig foliage itself. Maybe the coons don’t like coming so close to the house.

Below is a picture of one of my fig trees, trained to something between “staghorn” and “espalier-in-the-air”. The name doesn’t matter. What matters is all the figs are in reach.

all figs in reach

all figs in reach


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Finer points of thwarting raccoons

Even after my elaborate system of metal sleeves on the legs of the grape arbor, the grapes were still disappearing. At first I thought birds, because it started with one bunch. Birds can fly anywhere on the arbor. Though their mischief is slight, they can work it anywhere. However, night after night, more grapes were ravaged. Each morning, a bunch or two down, and three quarters of them wasted on the ground. It was progressing from one corner of the arbor. At that rate, a week or two, and all the fruit would be gone. I never saw any creatures at the vines. A late night visitor. I think, raccoons.

The most annoying thing about raccoons is they force me to think like a raccoon. I want to go on a hike or something, on my weekend. I want to work on interesting human things. Instead, in my mind, I have to become a raccoon. I guess I don’t have to. But otherwise, the grapes will all be gone. A lot of the them, before they’re even ripe.

So I think like a raccoon. I look at the system. I cannot see any way they can get up the metal sleeve. It looks like the sleeve has a lot of rub marks on it, though. Maybe they are getting past it somehow.

I got one of those apps that lets you use an old cell phone as a security camera. The next morning, I had dozens of muddy pictures to look through. Most of them were of cars going by in the night. But then, a series with what looked like a banded tail. And a masked face. Finally, one with, clearly, the four fingers of a little hand, across the metal of my sleeves.

raccoon trying to get past a metal sleeve

Raccoons have nothing else to do all night but keep on trying to get your fruit.

So, the raccoons, somehow, can climb past the metal sleeves. Once again, I have to think like a raccoon. If I were me, looking up at the slick metal, I would be discouraged, and not bother trying. But instead, I am a little animal with nothing to do all night but try and try and try to get at those grapes. I grab the sharp metal edges with my little hands, tough like gloves. I put up with falling off, multiple times. The photos series are five, ten minutes apart. It might have been comical, seeing the little ringtails slip off and tumble to the ground, time after time. But finally they made it up. And destroyed their modicum of grapes for the night. Not greedy. Just enough to be satiated. But they are going to keep coming back, night after night, till every last the grape is gone.

sheet metal sleeve, showing an anchor screw low down can be a raccoon toehold

An anchor screw low on the metal sleeve can give a raccoon toehold.

How are they getting up past the metal? I squint at the muddy photos. All they need is a toehold. Those little toes can catch on one screw hole, one crease in the metal. I am the little animal, with my toe in the crack. Maybe it hurts, but I want those grapes. I’ve got nothing else to do all night but keep trying.

So, I guess, myself, I have nothing else to do but keep trying to thwart them. It’s hard to get motivated on something you’re not sure is going to work. What if I spend all day fussing with this, and the coons are still eating my grapes? Maybe I’ll just write off the crop. I find myself scheming again how to kill those darn coons. But I know that will not work

I think, maybe the sleeves are just not quite long enough. Maybe another tier of metal. I think, maybe like shingles on a roof, you never want nails exposed. On a roof, rain can work its way down a nail hole. For coons, they can get a toe hold on any nail or screw.

two tiered metal sleeving

Two tiers of metal sleeving, the upper overlaps the lower by about four inches.

So I put another tier of meal sleeving below the existing one. I loosen the upper sleeve first, so I can tuck the support screws of the lower one up under the upper. I overlap about four inches. When I put the upper one back, I put the screws only at the top, so there is nothing for a toehold below. I spend all the long, hot afternoon on this possibly futile task.

the two screws that hold the sleeving to the post are in the top four inches

New idea: Put the anchor screws only at the top.

But it works. So far. The next morning, no new grapes squished on the sidewalk. We humans will get to eat the grapes, ourselves, at our leisure. And dry the rest for raisins.

But it looks like more of the raspberry canes are broken over. Again, I am a little animal. I can’t get to those grapes any more. Maybe there’s something else to eat. Those fruits up on the prickly canes. Let’s see. Crack goes the stiff cane. Coons are not greedy. They don’t mean to be destructive. But they can’t neatly pluck a raspberry from above. They clamber up. They don’t realize, if they break down a cane to get one berry, that stem, which could have produced dozens of future berries, will never bear any more.