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.

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

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
6/6/2020 6/13/2020 6


white grit with ruler showing few mm size

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Clean the grit out of sesame seeds

Use water flotation to remove the grit (small rocks) from sesame seeds.

I have been piqued that even high quality sesame seeds contain grit. There’s the disconcerting crunch between my teeth, when eating food made from these sesame seeds. You don’t want to wear out your teeth, chewing rocks! A cracked tooth can cost thousands of dollars to repair. Who needs that?

Cleaning seeds and other agricultural products is a challenge. The only practical way, on commercial scale, is to make use of some difference in properties between the contaminant and the desired material. For seeds, this is typically some combination of sieving and air-blowing.

When you cook a batch of dry beans, you occasionally find a rock or clump of dirt masquerading as one of the beans. it got through the threshing because it was about the same size and weight as a bean. Beans are big enough you can spot the rocks, and pick them out. But sesame seeds are too small.

After trying this a couple of times, I came up with a way, and decided to post this. Here, I use the difference in density. Sesame seeds are oily, and therefore mostly float in water or at least stay suspended. The grit sinks.

Sesame seeds seem to have a life of their own. They are light and slippery, and yet at the same time like to stick to everything. Pouring and spooning them, some always get out and make a mess. So I thought ahead. I was going to have a mass of wet sesame seeds I would need to dry. And dry fairly fast, to prevent mold.

I have a dehydrator. The setup for drying the seeds is one of the dehydrator trays, and a clean bandana.

dehydrator tray and folded bandana

Set up for drying

The bandana goes on top of the tray screen. It serves as a strainer to hold the sesame seeds, while letting water go through. But the cloth is bigger than the tray. The edges would be in the way, when slid into the dehydrator.

bandana draped over dehydrator tray, showing the bandana is bigger

Bandana overlaps tray

So the edges of the cloth are tucked behind the tray screen.

back side of dehydrator tray showing cloth edges folded out of the way

Fold the edges under

The time to get this ready is at the start, before fumbling with a mass of wet sesame seeds.

bandana with edges tucked under dehydrator tray mesh

Edges tucked

Next, the sesame seeds. I did about a 3-cup batch.

3 cups of sesame seeds in a glass quart measure cup

Batch of sesame seeds

I added water to make 4 cups, and stirred a bit.

measure cup and sesame seeds filled to 4 cups with water

Add water to float the seeds

Then I just poured out the floating sesame seeds on the cloth. I also included the sesame seeds that were not clearly floating but only suspended in the water.

pouring water and sesame seeds out of measure cup

Pour out the floating seeds

The grit stays on the bottom.

water and residue in measure cup after pouring off floating seeds

Grit is on the bottom

I spread out the wet sesame seeds and got them drying. The lowest temperature setting is enough, about 90°F.

spreading wet sesame seeds on dehydrator tray

Spread out the wet seeds

The next part is optional, if you want to prove the grit is in that residue. It just looks like more sesame seeds.

sesame seed residue in bottom of measure cup

The dregs

I put the remainder on some metal that could take the heat, in this case, a juice can lid.

residual sesame seeds on can lid

Support to burn

I set up to burn out the remaining organic matter.

propane torch showing how it will burn the residue

Set up to burn

After the water boiled away, the seed oil caught fire.

residuals sesame seeds burning with a flame

Oils burn off

This last part takes a lot of propane, so you might not want to waste the fuel. The charcoal bits have to be red-hot.

propane torch roasting residue

Roast the remainder

The carbon slowly oxidizes away.

glowing carbon burning away

Carbon slowly oxidizes

When the carbon is gone, there are the tell-tale rocks.

grit after burning away carbon

Remaining grit

Sure enough, they are about the size and color of sesame seeds.

white grit with ruler showing few mm size

Measures like sesame seeds.

Meanwhile, the wet sesame seeds are drying. The bandana makes it easy to put them away with minimal mess.

bandana holding dried sesame seeds

Easy pickup

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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Alaska summer botany

This summer, I have the opportunity to do a couple months field botany in Alaska. It’s in the islands and inlets of Southeast Alaska. Before this, I had only worked on the tundra, north of the Brooks Range.

On the way to the tundra and back, I flew over vast stretches of Alaska, and looked down in wonder. These coastal islands intrigued me. Dense forests are great, sure, but it gets interesting when meadows are mixed in. From the air, I could tell; the coastal Alaska landscape had — something — mixed in. The forests seemed, well, threadbare. In places, I could see down between the trees. What was that? What gave them that texture of nappy velvet?

Coastal Alaska forest, from the air.


 When I got here, I found part of the answer was “muskeg”. There are areas where the forest just peters out. A few scattered trees grow, but overall it’s open. I suppose “meadow” would mean grass and flowers, while “swamp” you’d expect to suck you down. Muskeg you can walk across, but your boots generally make a wet sound. Come to think, your footsteps sound like “mus-keg mus-keg mus-keg …”.

You see a border of muskeg around a lake, where the water table is high. Trees are stunted and sparse because they can’t get their roots deep. But then you see muskeg on level ground where there is no particular lake, just an occasional shallow pond. And then you see muskeg on ridges, where there is no excuse for poor drainage, except the incessant rain can’t run off fast enough.

Small pond in muskeg. The red border on the far shore is sundew.

In interior Alaska, I was shown muskeg. The story was, it’s wet and sparsely treed because of permafrost. But there is no permafrost in southeast Alaska. So, what exactly is “muskeg”?

Let’s back up. What, say, is “forest”? In Alabama you have forest because, even though that latitude around the world is supposed to be desert, a quirk of climate patterns brings in moisture, and so trees grow. In the Cascade mountains of Oregon you have forest because, even on rocky slopes with no soil, the sodden clouds keep things watered, and so trees grow. In the sand hills of Nebraska you have a forest because somebody planted it. All forests, but not one tree species in common between them.

One of the two sundew species, this one is Drosera anglica.

The muskeg of interior Alaska is dwarf birch, cottongrass, and water sedge. The trees are mostly black spruce, many leaning drunkenly above their inadequate roots. Muskeg here in southeast Alaska is deer cabbage, bulrush, and sundew. The trees are the full suite of forest species, upright but dwarfed.

Deer cabbage, Nephrophyllidium crista-galli.

 There are warm sunny days when, incredibly, Alaska here reminds me of the deep South. In Dixie, there are areas of swampy poor soil and skimpy trees. If people in the South who first named landforms had known the word “muskeg”, they might well have applied it.

I never have got an exact definition of muskeg. Nobody can quite explain to me why it forms where it does. But one thing’s clear. People here kind of like muskeg. When you clamber from the tangled obstacle course of a forest out into muskeg, suddenly your stride relaxes, and you can walk. You can see a distance, and enjoy the view. Hunters like it because they can spot their quarry. People go there to pick berries, to gather herbs, to cut Christmas trees. There’s no problem with the wet walk because everybody here wears rubber boots.

Another aspect of why the forests here look threadbare is more sad. When I first arrived, and looked at the green hills backing the town of Ketchickan, I thought it was old growth forest. Scattered in with the rich green of live trees was the occasional silver of a dead one. Like grey hairs on a mature head. I assumed those trees had lived out their long lives and finally gone. And by extension, that the green trees with them were about as old and big as they could get, and would be naturally dying, a few at at time. I had seen this pattern in protected stands of old growth on the Olympic Peninsula.

But no, the Ketchikan locals said. All that forest was cut. So, why would trees grow healthy for decades, grow as tall as any of the others, and then die?

 The term is “cedar decline”. As it was explained to me, the dead trees are Alaska yellow cedar. This is a tree I knew from the mountains of Washington and Oregon. There, I would come across it at some thousands of feet elevation. I had always thought of yellow cedar as the hoary patriarch of the mountains; big trees, clinging to lofty crags. I assumed such a tree could withstand any winter.

Alaska yellow cedar, Cupressus nootkatensis, as it looks in the coastal forest.

 One thing I did not understand about plants for a long time is that their roots can be much less cold-hardy than their tops. The roots don’t have to be, because they are always insulated in the ground. Since roots never get that cold, they never evolved to survive deep cold. Evidently, this is especially so for yellow cedar. Not only do they depend on the normal insulation of the soil, but also a deep blanket of snow. Snow feels cold to us, but it actually keeps the temperature beneath it from dropping much below freezing.

 Formerly, the yellow cedars here always had a blanket of winter snow over their roots. Now, winters are warmer, and there may be no snow. A cold snap arrives. The cold freezes the open ground, and kills the cedar roots. And so Alaska yellow cedar is in decline. This is occurring at low elevations. The cedar at higher elevation, where there is still dependable snow, is safe for now.

 I suppose this is why yellow cedar is strictly a mountain tree in Washington and Oregon. It doesn’t get down to zero very often west of the Cascades, but there is nothing to keep it from happening. If it happens, even once, in the long life of a tree, the tree species does not continue.

 Whatever factors might make the forests here thin in places, there is still lots of thick. I quickly learned the trees.

 Sitka spruce. It’s easy to tell a spruce is a spruce. The cornflake bark. The sharp needles. The peggy needle bases along the twig. But, if you can’t see the cones and the needles and all, it can be tricky to tell different species of spruce apart. Often, the spruces here are tall, and hold all those clues out of reach. But I have it easy. Only one spruce. Sitka spruce.

Butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris, a carnivorous plant rare in the lower 48, grows right in the gravel roads.

Cedar. I’m not sure I had ever seen western red cedar and Alaska yellow cedar growing together, but here they do all the time. I never thought I’d have any trouble telling them apart either! Red cedar has a distinctive formal look. The individual sprays along a limb repeat in almost mathematical similarity. Yellow cedar, in addition to being less regular, always has strongly downward-sweeping fine branchlets. Or so I thought!  The yellow cedar here is nothing like so weepy. Usually, I can tell red from yellow cedar at a glance, but every now and then there’s one where I have to go up close and look.

Sitka sedge, Carex sitchensis, is a striking wetland graminoid.

Hemlock. I suppose there must be some elevation range in the Cascades where the lowland western hemlock and the upland mountain hemlock mix. Here, it’s the whole forest. Usually, one is more prevalent than the other, but I have to look sharp. The forest may be mostly western hemlock. But, just to keep things interesting, there will be a tree festooned with the little stars of mountain hemlock.

Then, what’s missing.

Douglas fir. The most common tree west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon is nowhere to be found here. From time to time, I keep thinking I see one, but I look close, and it’s always something else.

Asphodel, Triantha glutinosa, has leaves like an iris, but flowers very different.

True firs are rare. No grand fir. No subalpine fir. There are supposedly a few silver firs on another part of the island. If I ever find any more, the Powers that Be want to know. Pacific yew is so rare as to be the stuff of legend. If I ever find one, the Powers that Be really want to know.

Oval leaf huckleberry, Vaccinium ovalifolium.

In the forest, there is a tall understory and a short understory. The tall understory is mostly made of two kinds of huckleberry, both about head height, and hard to tell apart. The easiest way to distinguish is if they have berries: Vaccinum alaskense has dark purple-black berries, usually single, while V. ovalifolium berries have a blue bloom and tend to be in clusters. There is a lot of rusty menziesia, and occasional red huckleberry. Fortunately, none of these are prickly. For that, we have patches of devil’s club.

 When I was first on the job, I was out with the wildlife crew. They were looking for goshawks. Their protocol is to play a recording of a goshawk call, and see if a live bird responded. To assure they cover the terrain, they make calls from points in a grid, some hundreds of meters apart. At each point, they spend some time, making multiple calls, and writing down various observations. Then, beeline to the next point. Since I was traveling with them, it was up cliffs, and through swamps, never mind the thickets of fallen trees, and stands of devil’s club.

After I was on my own, however, I realized, since I am searching for rare plants, the more ground I cover, the more likely I am to find them. Therefore, a more rambling route. No need to slide straight down a bank. No reason not to skirt a swamp. And my rare plants are never never under devil’s club!

Eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, are so common nobody remarks on them.

The short understory is made of bunchberry, strawberry bramble, and fernleaf goldthread, all only about 10 cm high. The forest ecologist mentioned that, where these are abundant, it’s good winter deer habitat. The deer paw through the snow to browse. I guess it’s a good sign that, in most places, these plants are ubiquitous.

In addition there are about five kinds of ferns. And skunk cabbage. In Oregon, skunk cabbage grows in swamps. Here, it’s so wet, skunk cabbage grows wherever it may please. On banks. In moss. Even, occasionally, in rock crevices. It does seem happiest in the muddy swales between the ridges. It is a way of gauging bears.

I walk through a patch of skunk cabbage, the big slick leaves squeaking at the brush of my boots. Here and there, in place of a plant, is a scatter of leaves around a hole. The bears dig up the roots and eat them. I am impressed. I assume that skunk cabbage, like everything else in the arum family, if full of raphides, microscopic needle-like crystals in the plant tissue.

When I was a teenager in the Midwest, there was this nasty trick kids would play on other kids. I never played it on anybody, but I told my good friend Dale about it. I showed him the plant, in that case jack-in-the-pulpit, a wild arum that grew in the woods. I dug away the soil enough to show the small tuber beneath. I took a tiny fingernail scratch off the tuber and had him carefully taste it. Notice that prickling on the tip of your tongue, I warned. if you were to dig up the tuber and try to eat it, it would taste sweet at first. But then your throat and tongue would start prickling and burning, as the needle-like crystals pierced your cells. It takes quite a while for the pain to fade.

Dale lived in a different neighborhood. The next time I visited him, the prank was making the rounds. Dale, always the trickster, had named the tubers “chew berries”. All the kids who had already had the prank played on them would conspire on the next victim, slyly convincing him how good a chew berry was going to be.

I don’t know if the bears here are immune to that prickling and burning, or just tough it out. But, in every patch of skunk cabbage, there are some dug up. If it was a long time ago, the detached leaves are pretty much composted into the ground, and new little sprouts are coming up from pieces of root left in the hole. There is every gradation of brown leaves, yellowed leaves, and leaves barely wilted, that tell you how recently the bear was here. If the leaves look very fresh and green, the bear could be right over there looking at you from behind a tree.

When I talk to people back home, they always ask, “Have you seen any bears?” Of course I see bears. Fortunately, I have only seen them when we drive around a corner and surprise one or two. They take off into the country as fast as they can go. I am long over the romance of seeing bears. I most definitely do not want to see bears when I’m out working in the woods. Usually, they take off into the country as fast as they can go, but you never know.

It would look really, really bad for the Forest Service to have an employee mauled by a bear. Thus, the protocol is never to work alone. What exactly is “alone”? In the bear training videos, the example is hikers marching together along a trail. When the bear appears, the humans step up side by side into a phalanx, bear-spray canisters at the ready.

Well, we are never anywhere near a trail. A good part of the work, such as wildlife and botany, is “a whole lot of nothing”. This means, we are looking for something, rare plants or animals, and the overwhelming majority of the time do not find it. The point of the work is to thoroughly document the rare thing is safely absent.

One of my rare plants, Platanthera orbiculata. I would surely recognize this distinctive leaf, but I never found it on the job (this photo from another district).

To do this with any kind of efficiency, we end up widely dispersed. How widely? In sight of each other? In earshot? Well, in reality it usually means within a couple miles, in radio contact.

This actually can work. An example illustrates why we humans have taken over the planet. One day, Ted, the wildlife biologist radioed, “We came down on a sow bear and half grown cub.” Later, he related in more gripping detail: Seeing the tall salmonberry bushes moving up ahead. The cub trying to climb a tree. The sketchy view, through the thick brush, of where the mother bear was. Mostly going by sound, and slight motions of trees. The tense moments of both sides feeling out what to do. The uneasy standoff till the bears decided to retreat. Summed up, on the radio, “She seems to be headed uphill, parallel to the P road, towards unit 854”.

Now, I had the same maps on my iPad.  In one second, I knew exactly where the encounter had taken place. In my mental geography, “unit 854” was bright orange.  If the bear shared any such concept, she probably knew it as an area of thicker timber. However, the “P road” had no physical existence. The term means “proposed road”. It was merely a dotted line on our maps, marked by at most a few strands of flagging. Yet it was real to us as a superhighway.

I was actually headed over to survey the P road. From this news about the bears, I angled to intersect the road at the other end. And so, we avoided the bears. However, suppose we had been a group of hunters who wanted those bears? Even with their superior senses, they would have stood little chance.

My whole summer has been like a trapeze act, for getting my work done. Some weeks, the wildlife people had work off on another part of the forest, so I clasped hands with the fisheries crew. They walked up streams, documenting salmon habitat while I surveyed the woods nearby. One week, though, all the other teams had commitments far away. At the last minute, it turned out the geologists were coming over from another district.

Our geologists

I enjoyed working with the geologists. They took routes through the forest similar to mine, but with a slightly different focus.

When I was looking at this job, the organizers had talked excitedly about “karst”. Karst means land underlain by minerals that dissolve, such a limestone. This can form features like pinnacles and caves. To get an idea, search for keywords “china karst images”. These landforms, as well as the chemistry of the minerals themselves, can give rise to interesting botany.

“We have karst here in the forest!” was the word. I pictured knobbly ridges poking out above the trees. Since this was Alaska, they would have long views out across the sea. I would be sent to these places. They would be a wonderland of rare herbs and flowers I had never seen before. Many years ago I came up with a term for this: “The heaven, and hell, of field botany”. Heaven, because of all the interesting new species. Hell, for exactly the same reason, identifying what all those species are!

Painted peak looks like karst, but is really a volcano.

From time to time, after I got here and was working on the forest, someone would refer to “that band of karst that runs through here”. They waved vaguely at the map. To me, the forest was all so thick and cliffy, I couldn’t tell the difference. Finally, I was going to be out with the geologists. I would get to see the karst!

Well, it turned out I had been back and forth across the karst already, numerous times, without knowing it. It didn’t look any different. Just tall trees. No views. The geologist had maps showing where it was. We went in there.

Since karst bedrock can dissolve out from underneath, a common feature is streams that disappear. One of the main things the geologist were looking for was these “ingresses”. Water is flowing down a course, and then finds it easier to go underground and follow one of the solution channels. The water re-emerges somewhere else as springs. If logging operations run over an ingress, they can clog it with sediment, and upset the hydrology of the springs. The geologists were marking no-cut buffers around the ingresses. This meant they had to find the ingresses.

Until recently, the main way to do this was simply to walk all the flow channels and look. But now they had a new tool: LIDAR maps that showed closed basins. It was amazing how well this worked. We targeted these areas of the forest. Following down a stream, we would typically come to land that had character of wetland edge. The geologist explained that during heavy rains, there might be standing water for a while, when it could not drain down the ingress fast enough. To my botanist eyes, it was like the suite of species I had got used to seeing where trees blew down and let more sunlight in to the forest floor: Merten’ sedge, star sedge, pioneer violet, enchanter’s nightshade, and various shrubs and grasses.

Star sedge, Carex echinata, typical of forest openings.

Eagerly, I sought for new flora. But the only unique thing I found was miners’ lettuce, Montia sibirica. In Washington and Oregon, this little herb is one of the most common understory species west of the Cascades. I found a bit of it in the marshy flow channels at two different karst ingresses, and I saw it nowhere else in all Alaska. So much for rare herbs and blossoms. And so much for sweeping views. Still, it’s sweet to work in the forest.

Cloudy view of Deer Mountain, over Ketchikan

One weekend in Ketchikan, I was waiting for the bus and got talking to a woman. When I mentioned I was working here as a botanist, she got kind of dreamy. “You mean, all you do is walk in the woods, and look at plants?” Well, then the bus came, before I could explain.

In a town the size of Ketchickan, the phone book is slim. If you live here, as you leaf through, you see people on every page you know. Well, the difference between being kind-of-into-plants, and being a field botanist is like that. Everywhere you go you see plants you know. But for the field work, you have to know every name in the book.

Folk art

I suppose every job gets to its limit. A couple weeks ago, once I knew all the plants, it was feeling like enough. Slogging through the wet woods, seeing the same old species. And never, never finding any of my rare plants.

But I had agreed to stay for the extension. From the original thirty days, to a total of sixty days. About three more weeks. I was ready for a change.

The word came down for a change. I was asked to switch from routine track-through-the-forest surveys, to instead checking rock pits for invasive species. The idea is, if there is going to be logging on the forests, they will need gravel for the roads. They may be taking this gravel from diggings developed decades ago. If invasive species have got into those rock pits, it could be bad news. Seeds and roots would be spread all through the forest.

The sweet-scented orchid Platanthera dilatata is almost as common as a weed.

So I have been doing this the last week or so, and it is rather more interesting. It took a while to figure out. You would think old rock pits would be obvious. The first time, I drove the whole south end of the island and didn’t see a single one. Then I got the GIS coordinates, and put the locations on my maps.

The first one I went to, I thought I still hadn’t found it. I parked along a road, and looked at the solid wall of trees. On faith, I walked in. I found myself in a grove of alders with a flat floor. Around the sides were the rock cuts into the hillsides. There were no invasive species. Nothing like that could live in the dense shade of the alders.

This has turned out to be rather typical. Many of the old rock pits, when I find them, are now alder woodlands. A good number of them have standing water. This, again, discourages most invasive species. There is some reed canarygrass, but there is far more along the road right-of-ways. After logging, the Forest Service planted this pestiferous grass for erosion control. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Dwarf fireweed, Epilobium latifolium, can grow in rock crevices.

Some of the diggings are real quarries, with steep sides that harbor interesting cliff species. In one north-facing hollow, I came upon purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), a plant more typical of the high arctic.

Potentilla erecta, found once, never seen before or since.

Exploring old rock pits is kind of fun, but nothing in the way of invasive species alerts. Over the decades since the major logging, people have occasionally visited here. As with most National Forest, it is public land. However this area is only accessible by sea. People would have to get here by boat, and then travel the roads by whatever scooter or buggy they could bring on their boat. This typically happens in hunting season. The result is that any weeds, such as oxeye daisy, would be spread along the roads. But seldom would anyone have reason to go into the rock pits.

At one site, I stepped into the forest. While I stood setting up my data screens, a tiny animal, maybe a shrew, scurried out of the duff. It nosed my boots, walked around them, and slipped back into the undergrowth. All, so quick I never got a good look. But, that seemed a kind of welcome. Or at least unceremonial acknowledgement that I was now part of this world.

The obscure orchid Malaxis monophyllos. The distinction between var. brachypoda and var. monophyllos is whether that stalk twists 180 degrees or 360 degrees. Who’s to say?

One day, I had been to the far south end of the island, or at least as far as I could go. There were more rock pits on my map, but I couldn’t get to them. Roads were bermed off, and bridges over streams had been removed. I had spent a long day, probing down each branch of the road system till I got to the point of diminishing returns.

The past week of rainy weather had finally broken up. There had been sun breaks through the day, and now as I drove out, the afternoon was golden. I passed through shady forest, and out into muskeg, crossed creeks and skirted little lakes. All, surpassingly lovely, and peaceful. Through all this terrain, in the track of the road, mile after mile, were — toads.

I respect toads, and would not knowingly harm one. Their stolid little forms were no more apparent than chunks of road gravel, until they would move. Fortunately, something in their instinct told them to hop at right angles to the truck that was trundling down upon them. Pathetic little hops. Not the graceful leap of a frog. Only the inch-or-two jumps that toads can manage. They got the idea, though. Hop hop hop hop hop. And each one would be out of the road. I hope I didn’t squash any.

But, where had they all come from? Why, on this particular sun-splashed afternoon, were they suddenly there? I could not remember seeing even one toad in the forest, ever before. In the bigger picture, how had a little fresh water amphibian managed to get to an island all surrounded by deep salt water, and which had been so since the ice age glaciers melted?

Gentiana platypetala

In a few weeks I go home. I know how government bureaucracy works, and wonder if anybody will ever use my data. I never found any rare plants. I did not even find many invasive plants.

I did find one patch, of a really bad invasive species called orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum). It spreads by seeds, tracked on shoes and tires, and by blowing in the wind. It forms dense patches that spread, and persist, from underground runners. Once it gets into an area, it is almost impossible to eradicate. By far the best practice is prevention. Prevent the spread. The good news is, at this time, there is only one known patch on the entire south island road system. The bad news is, this is right where the Forest Service parks the trucks and four-wheelers, which then drive all over the forest.

I know how bureaucracy works. Probably, nobody will ever look at my data.

wide bush persimmon tree

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Grow a little persimmon tree

Persimmon trees are eminently suited for training to small size.

I recently read the book “Grow a Little Fruit Tree” by Ann Ralph. I am in complete agreement on the principles, but I was surprised the author “excuses” persimmon trees. Oh, let them grow big, was the plea, they’re so beautiful in the fall.

Well my little persimmon tree gets a lot more attention in the autumn, because it is so small. Persimmons are widely planted across Portland. People put one in, then just let it go. All summer, it blends into the background amidst the rest of the green. In fall, it drops its leaves to reveal the bounty of orange globes — too high to reach.

I planted my persimmon tree in April 2014. I set it in a good spot. But I, too, just let it go. In 2016, when scarcely more than six feet tall, it bore its first crop. I didn’t realize what was going on until the leaves fell off. Eighty persimmons on that small tree!

small persimmon tree

First crop in 2016, 80 persimmons when only 6 feet tall.

One day I was looking out the window. A little Asian lady walking along the sidewalk stopped dead in her tracks to stare. I’m not the only one to appreciate small fruit trees!

persimmons below eye level

Looking down on persimmons.

I had seen persimmon trees in yards in California, grown tall and skinny, all the fruit perched two stories high. I was determined not to let mine get away. I agree with the philosophy of “Grow a Little Fruit Tree”, but I have a difference of technique. I was not about to chop my tree off six inches above the ground, or whatever it was. No, I liked the growth up to six feet. I just wasn’t going to let it get any taller.

Most fruiting trees, such as apples, pears, peaches, plums, and cherries, bear fruit on existing branches. The flowers pop out of buds that formed the previous year, then stayed dormant through winter. Persimmons are different. If you look at a leafless tree in winter, you will find no fruit buds. Where do the persimmons come from?

diagram, fruit on new growth

Fruit forms only on new growth.

Only when new leafy shoots grow out in spring do flower buds develop in the axils of the leaves. These buds open into small four-petaled flowers, typically creamy white. These flowers are rather inconspicuous, especially since by that time the tree is well covered in leaves.

The salient point for tree size is that, in order for your persimmon tree to have fruit, it has to make fairly extensive growth of new shoots. These can be outward, but if you let them they will also go up.

diagram, persimmon unpruned

Unpruned, branches extend up.

My experience is that persimmons actually tend to have most fruit on the outward-spreading new growth, relatively little on the uprights. So you are not losing anything by taking out the verticals. I mostly use the technique of “drop crotch-ing”. I cut back to the point where a branch divides in two, a crotch. I take out the more vertical side.

diagram, drop-crotch cut

Cutting directs growth outward.

To keep a tree short, I am always thinking about reach height. Simply, the height to which I can reach, while standing on the ground. Since a persimmon has to grow outward in order to fruit, I want the results of winter pruning to be below reach height, because that’s where spring growth will start.

Some of the uprights on my tree were getting rather large, more than an inch in diameter. The best available crotches had side branching less than half that size. I thought, if I cut off such vigorous limbs, I might induce the tree to shoot out a thicket of water sprouts from that point. To my surprise, this did not happen. The tree was perfectly satisfied to re-direct its growth mostly in the wide spreading direction.

In all tree pruning for fruit, you need to think ahead. If you have a persimmon tree that has grown up so it has only major trunk to reach height, you will not have such an easy time getting it small again.

So I have managed to keep my persimmon tree small, much to the incredulity of some. There have even been visitors who had a hard time believing those really could be persimmons, on a mere bush. The crops have not been mere. Below is a picture of the tree in 2018. More than 350 fruit, and I could reach them all.

wide bush persimmon tree

Crop in 2018, more than 350 fruit, all in reach.

Well, 350 was what I tallied. A friend in the neighborhood later casually mentioned he’d been helping himself. I asked, about how many? Maybe fifty. So there may have been considerably more.

It seems like a lot of Portland persimmon tree owners finally haul out the ladder to pick the fruit in late fall, when they notice birds are pecking them. Or they give up and don’t bother, because the birds have pecked everything. Out of my 350 persimmons, only 13 were pecked into, most at the very top of the tree. Birds prefer staying as high above ground as possible, for safety.

looking down on persimmons

Fruit close to the ground.

So that’s another point in favor of short persimmon trees. Natural bird deterrent, simply by the fruit being at bird-scaring closeness to the ground.

purple grapes hanging from the vines that are on support wires


Growing grapes, part 2, training

Cultivated grapes are derived from wild grapes that are forest vines. This is important in understanding how to work with grape plants. Give them what they need, so they can give you what you want.

man in forest by tall tree, holding wild grapevine to show its extent up the tree

Wild grape vines grow up forest trees

In nature, grapes vines stretch from the forest floor, all the way up to the top of tall trees. Fruit grows only in the parts that reach bright sunlight. The whole point of vineyards is to give the grape plants the sun they need, while bearing fruit at heights convenient to us.

view looking upward along a wild grape vine, showing it reaching up to the top of a forest tree

Grape vine, like a rope, to the top of a tree

If we could levitate, we might have developed viticulture as a multi-story crop system, with the grapevines growing up through nut trees. We would float around in the treetops at harvest time, gathering the grapes. Once, when I was a teenager in Alabama, I climbed to the top of a tall oak, and picked three pounds of wild muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) fruit. It was fun, but there’s no way treetop grapes would ever be practical.

At the other extreme, grape vines would grow perfectly fine, let to spread out across open ground. In parts of the desert Southwest, wild grapes scramble over rockpiles, with their roots near springs for moisture. Grape plants would be happy covering a field, but think how hard it would be to pick the fruit, stumbling through those tangled vines.

So grape growing is basically a matter of giving the plants the sun they need, while training them so we can get the fruit. Commercial method are optimized for things like long rows, so machinery can go between, and efficient use of support material. When you look at grape literature, this is what you will see, with lots of details on how to do it. The two ingredients are: Sunshine for the plants. Access for us.

Actually, there is a third factor, critters who want to eat your grapes. I’ll talk about that now, because if you get it right you’ll avoid trouble years down the line.

grape vines by wood fence, extending to support wires above the fence

Grape vines by fence, on support wires

When I lived in Colorado, I grew grape vines with the stems fanning out up one side of a wooden fence. From the top of the fence, I had support lines spanning to the end rafters on the south side of my house. I trained the vines along these sloping wires. When the plants filled in, they cast a welcome summer shade. The clusters of grapes hung down from this living roof, both picturesque and easy to harvest.

purple grapes hanging from the vines that are on support wires

Grapes in the shade canopy

I got away with it for two years. Then the raccoons found it. There was no way to keep them off. They could climb the fence any number of places, and walk along the top to get to the grapes. At first I thought they would eat only the fruit near the fence. But they kept at it, clambering out into the canopy, night after night, till finally they had eaten every grape. At least what they didn’t knock down or ruin.

Basically, I had not thought ahead to make my grapes “defensible”. After years of growing the vines, there was nothing I could do but start over. It happened that I moved to Portland, Oregon, starting over anyway; but now I carefully think about grape supports to prevent problems.

By far the biggest critter problem for home grape growing is raccoons.

Bees and wasps come to the ripe fruit, to get the juice, especially after grape skins are broken by other creatures. But these small fliers are usually minor. If you walk around barefoot, watch that you don’t step on these stinging insects, who scavenge fallen grapes.

Birds peck ripe grapes, but for me their damage has always been minor. Occasionally they may knock down a whole cluster of grapes, while taking only a few.

You might think squirrels would ravage grapes, but I have not found this to be so. A friend loaned me a book on squirrel control. The book made the important point that individual squirrels vary greatly in what they prefer to eat. Or even what they know to eat. For example, I have grown winter squash for many years. I would leave the squashes out late in the autumn, and never had any squirrel problems.  Then, one fall, I came home after a weekend away to find half a dozen squashes gnawed open, evidently for the seeds. Immediate harvest of the rest! By the next year, the squirrel who was wise to the ways of squash had evidently died or moved on, and I never had any more squirrel damage.

So it’s always possible a squirrel may arrive in your yard who is mad for grapes. When people see what I do to prevent raccoon attacks, they always think it’s for squirrels. Maybe it’s because squirrels are obvious, and active during the day, and people see them. Raccoons are secretive, and largely nocturnal.

Raccoons are abundant in nearly every urban center in North America. I have heard they are now in Europe too. I’ve watched them go in and out of storm sewers. They travel through these underground pipes, so they can easily move through neighborhoods without being seen, and without having to cross roads above ground.

grape vines that raccoons have fed on, showing clusters that have many missing grapes

Grapes slowly disappear to raccoons

It can be easy to miss the fact that raccoons are destroying your grapes. Animals eat only so much at a time. Raccoons come back night after night, incrementally. I would notice a scattering of grapes on the ground, and gradually it seemed there were less and less on the vines. I could easily have dismissed it as squirrels or birds. I wanted to know.

I found you can rig up an old smartphone as a hidden camera, using a motion detector app, so it starts recording video when there is movement. In this way, I proved it was raccoons. They would come by, for only a few minutes, in the small hours long after midnight. They ruined much more than they ate, and the kept coming back till all the grapes were gone.

two raccoons, one in the grape arbor, one on the ground below

Raccoons, by night monitor, about 3AM

You can “attack” or “prevent”. I’ll first talk about “attack”, mostly to dismiss it; then move on to the prevention I have found most effective.

Maybe it occurs to you to shoot raccoons. Leaving aside any legality, this is hard to do. You need a gun. You need to watch you don’t shoot something you don’t want to, such as your neighbor’s windows, or your neighbor. If you hire someone to do the shooting, you are going to be paying for a lot of hours. Your agent has to stay awake and stealthy all night, waiting for that brief raccoon visit.

We assume you intend to shoot to kill. You may imagine a certain satisfaction in teaching raccoons a lesson, such as by pellet gun or some such. Most likely, the coon will just wait till you leave, and then come back. Even if you do permanently chase off that particular coon, another one will soon move in.

Much the same goes for screaming, yelling, or trying to stab with pitchforks. There is a continually replenished supply of new raccoons.

Raccoons are hard to poison. They like what they like, and are highly suspicious of anything that smells odd. The best poisons, like strychnine and “1080”, are tightly regulated. Not to mention the risk of off-target poisoning, and the continual supply of new raccoons.

Moving into the zone between “attack” and “prevent”: Electric fencing can be effective, if you can configure it right. You have to close off every point of entry, both on the ground and overhead. You want to avoid shocks to, say, your grandkids, or visitors with pacemakers. Perhaps you can power the system on a day/night timer. Not everyone appreciates the aesthetics of electric fence lines.

You can trap raccoons, but then you have the decision of whether to kill them and dispose of the bodies, or release them somewhere, which will probably already be the territory of other raccoons, not to mention other gardeners. Aside from any legality, both of these take considerable effort. Frankly, if you talk to anyone who’s tried it, you learn it takes enormous and never-ending effort!

You can try repelling raccoons with something noxious. This will probably not work, as coons will just step over to get what they want. A neighbor told me raccoons hate the smell of moth balls. Well, they didn’t hate it enough to skip the grapes and cherries. The moth balls did most to repel me.

The only thing that has worked is to set up physical barriers so raccoons simply can not get to the grapes. It may not be obvious what these should be, until you understand what coons can and can not do.

raccoon in tree, showing how well they can climb

Coon in Cornelian Cherry tree

Raccoons are about as agile as cats, but with some differences. They are better climbers through brush, and have more incentive. One time I noticed raccoons foraging in a Cornelian cherry tree (Cornus mas). These trees bear small, tart berries, just what raccoons like. The trees have thin, twiggy branches, which would be difficult for a cat to navigate through. However, the raccoons, with their dexterous, five-fingered “hands” were almost swimming through the canopy.

Raccoons are about as good as cats at crossing a narrow route, such as a two-by-four or similar sized branch, spanning through space. Raccoons are much more able to cross a span they would have to hang underneath than a cat would, or would care to.

Raccoons are not so good at jumping. Cats can spring to the top of six-foot fence. Raccoons can’t get up on a trellis that way; they would have to climb. Cat’s can easily leap across a gap of a few feet. Raccoons are more limited. A gap of a three feet between, say, a tree the coons can get into and your grape supports will probably keep them out.

Raccoons can’t climb an individual year-old grape shoot. It’s too thin and weak. So single vines trailing to the ground are safe. However, a few vines together can serve as a ladder. Raccoons, especially small ones, might well be able to climb the few-inch-thick “trunk” of a mature grapevine. The shreddy bark gives ample claw traction.

Raccoons can climb vertical wooden posts and tree trunks. They can easily clamber through grapevines growing on a chain link fence. They cannot directly climb the walls of most houses, but they could make use of handholds like downspouts and shutters.

From this you can see that most commercial grape growing systems are cafeteria lines for raccoons. The vines are trained in vertical planes. Even if the lowermost part is above direct reach, coons can easily get up the grapevine trunks, or support posts. In a commercial operation, there are so many grapes that what raccoons take might not be significant. However, in your back yard, with proportionally less grapes, you will lose your whole crop.

wooden arbor structure having metal sleeves around posts, so raccoons cannot climb to the grapes

Example, raccoon-proof arbor

Above is an example of a grape arbor that has proved coon-proof. The metal sleeves around the posts are key. They are too slippery for raccoons to climb. Notice the sleeves around the grape vine stems too. Training the vines as single stems, and nearly vertical, assures the coons can not get past.

The sleeves look like stove pipe, which I read about in an old book. Stovepipe is impossible to find any more. The sleeves are made of sheet aluminum, which you can get at any hardware store. It won’t rust out like iron stovepipe would. It is held into tubes by small sheet metal screws.

Details on how to do it: https://rickshory.wordpress.com/2019/05/16/metal-sleeves-keep-raccoons-out/

Update: https://rickshory.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/finer-points-of-thwarting-raccoons/

I am not going to give any particular plans for such an arbor because there are so many different ways to do it. For example, you could use metal posts, that are inherently un-climbable. It’s better if you think it through yourself, based on your particular landscape.

Grapevines are wonderfully malleable. Like wild vines, the roots can be one place and the bearing canopy another. You could plant your vine by the dripping downspout, where there’s lots of moisture. Then you could train the vine up to your third-story penthouse patio, and have the canopy there.

The disjoint could be horizontal too. One place I saw, someone had a grape vine planted near the house, in a yard full of shady trees. Over the years, the vine had run hundreds of feet along a fence till it finally got out from under the trees, and bore grapes at the back alley.

When you look at the grape literature, you will see all sorts of vine training styles. Understanding how grapes grow is more important than any style. The arbor in my example has the foliage overhead, which is never done commercially. It would take too much ground space, and you couldn’t drive tractors under. But such a thing can be great for home growing. It creates a shady canopy, pleasant to sit under in summer heat.

A point easy to miss in casual descriptions of grape culture is that you chop off huge amounts of the plant each year. You basically whack it back to nothing but the main trunk and maybe a few branches. You are not being cruel. Grape vines are good at generating great long lengths of themselves in a single season. A wild vine in a tree puts out new growth to get past the additional growth the tree itself has made.

Trees sometimes lose limbs, tearing out a big section of grape vine with it. The grape vine is happy for the extra space. It shoots new growth into the opening, to get more sun. A tree has to build up enough structure to support its own weight, and therefore can’t lengthen very far each year. A vine puts its strength into growing longer, using something else for support.

A wild grape vine in a tree expects to put out new growth every year, seeking the sun. The older growth from previous years gets shaded out in the interior of the tree, and serves as conduit. To do something similar on the ground, you would have to extend your grape trellis as much as thirty feet each year! Grape growers centuries ago figured out it was simplest to just simulate the limb loss that tears off great chunks of grapevine. They cut off nearly all a season’s growth. Next year the vine puts out its new sun-seeking growth in the same space as before.

Grapes only produce fruit on this new growth. The stronger the new growth, the bigger the clusters of grapes. If you leave a grape vine unpruned, so the vines tangle back on themselves year after year, the new growth gets ever more thin and spindly.

There are two factors. First, there are ever more points of growth. The root can only supply so much. The strength is spread over these many points, and each one gets only a little. Also, the many shoots shade each other. Alone, they could grow out faster than tree limbs, but here they are fighting each other. On such a neglected vine there will be few grapes, and they will be small.

This bearing-on-new growth means grapes avoid late frosts. When I lived in Colorado, grapes were my most satisfactory crop. Fruit trees produce their flower buds the year before. They hold them through the winter, ready to bloom in spring. In the up-and-down temperature climate of Colorado, this was a disaster, especially for the early bloomers like peaches and apricots. Spring would come. The trees would bloom. Sometimes fruit would get to the size of little green peas. Then, nine years out of ten, a late cold snap would come and kill all the fruit. No more blossoms till next year. The trees themselves grew great. They never had to waste any strength making fruit.

In grapes, however, the fruit buds are not even there till the new shoots grow out. The flower buds don’t exist yet, and therefore can’t be hurt by frost. As the shoots begin to grow, flower bud clusters form at the leaf nodes. That is, at the point a leaf comes off from the stem. These bud clusters look something like little pale rudimentary bunches of grapes.

a grape flower bud cluster, showing that it is attached to the stem at the same point as the base of a leaf

Grape flower bud cluster

These bud clusters will become your bunches of grapes. Now, here is something it took me years to notice. I assumed the grapes formed at random all along the shoots. Probably because I was looking at a tangled canopy. Finally I realized all the grapes grow at the first few nodes, close to where the shoot starts. They may skip the very first short node or two, but then the grapes form at the three or four nodes after that. The shoot itself may continue growing all summer, up to thirty feet long, but no more grapes. The shoot is harvesting sunshine, and sending it down to feed the grapes at its base.

graphic showing that grapes form at only the first few nodes of a new shoot

Grapes grow only at first few nodes

There is sort of an exception. If you cut the end off the new shoot, maybe because it’s getting too long and in the way, often shoots will branch out from the part you left. These new shoots will have some tendency to make flower buds at their own first few nodes. However, these get a late start, and seldom amount to anything.

new shoots growing from each node along a horizontal scaffold branch of mature grape vine

Shoots from a horizontal scaffold

This first-few-nodes idea is useful in managing your grapes. For example, you can do something like the picture above. Train the business part of your grape vine trunk as a horizontal scaffold, as shown. Each year, the new shoots will grow out of that. You can see that by the end of summer, the vines may well have grown all over the slatted roof above. However, all the bunches of grapes will be close to the main scaffold, in easy reach. Of course, you need to assure the whole thing is coon proof! Each winter, prune off everything back to the main scaffold.

(Of course this is just one of many possible ways. You can have the scaffold on top of slats or strings, and the grapes hanging through.)

Here is another thing it took me years to realize. When a grape vine starts growing in the spring, it puts out shoots from all over; low down, in the middle, and even from the base.

graphic showing that a grapevine will put out shoots all along its length

Shoots start from all over, especially on sunny sides

I thought I had to leave them all, no matter how much they might be providing raccoon ladders, or slapping me in the face all summer.

a bud starting to grow on the main trunk of a grapevine

Grape shoot budding from the trunk, where not wanted

Somehow, I finally got it that grape vines start many more shoots than they need. I could just break off the ones from the wrong places.

graphic showing to remove any shoots from a grapevine where they will not contribute to the desired structure

Break off any shoots not wanted

This does not take any tools. You just flick them off with your fingers as soon as they appear.

graphic showing that the shoots left to grow on a grapevine will fill out the vine

Remaining shoots fill in

The shoots left get all the strength of the whole vine. In this way you can put the shade canopy where you want.

In the same way you can shape a vine you want to want to get established. In the picture below are some young grape plants. There are a few plants close together, not yet decided which will be the one for the spot. But all of them are putting out a whole series of buds.

young grape plants with buds opening all along the stem

All but the top bud can go

If all the buds were left to grow, each shoot would grow moderately. I wanted one to grow as long as possible, to get the vine to established size. So I rubbed off all the buds but the strongest at the top.

young grape plants, showing strong growth after all but the top bud was removed

Strong growth, from leaving only the top bud

In only a few weeks, that top bud had taken all the strength of the vine, and was growing rapidly.

graphic showing that grape shoots that do not reach anything they can use for support will snap off under their own weight

Unsupported shoots will break off under their own weight

It’s important to support these new shoots. Grapes are vines. They need something to climb on. If grape shoots grows out into space, with no support, they will snap off under their own weight when a few feet long. This will happen to nearly all of them (except probably the ones you don’t want).

A rule of thumb is that the canopy of each grape vine will be something like 100 square feet. Of course vines can overlap and share the same structure, but keep in mind the size. Varieties of grapes differ in vigor. Some are delicate, and will never get that big. Others are much more robust, and will spread to several times that size. Try to research varieties you are interested in, or go look at existing plants to know what to expect.

It can be hard to believe that a small, spindly grape plant growing from a cutting will finally be a big vine, heavy with fruit. The rule of thumb here is that any trellis or arbor should be at least strong enough that you could reach up and grab on to it by your hands, and hang from it with your full weight. Slats and strings that crisscross within won’t need to be so sturdy, but the overall grape vine can weigh hundreds of pounds.  Also, when fully leafed out in summer, it will take a lot of force from the wind. A structure too flimsy will collapse, or blow down.

You, of course, do not need to build a complete structure when you first plant a grape vine. If you grow it from a cutting, it may need no more than a bamboo pole for support the first few years. Raccoons will have no interest until there are ripe grapes. But don’t paint yourself into a corner. Plant grape vines such that you at least can support and critter-proof them when they mature. Once a grape vine gets going, it can much more than double in size each year.