Fruit in your future? Start with small fruits, not tree fruits

Small fruits give you lots to eat,
Tree fruits often spell defeat.

I am 100% pro-fruit! I would love to see more fruit plants of all types grown across Maryland. But it saddens me to see gardeners become frustrated and disenchanted with fruit growing because their first attempt was with apples or peaches.

A National Gardening Association survey showed that 41% of U.S. households grew edibles in 2021, a 24% increase since the start of the COVID pandemic. Many new vegetable gardeners naturally see fruits as their “next frontier.” Most vegetable crops are annual plants while all fruit plants are perennials, living year-to-year in the same garden space for years and requiring year-round attention. You need to up your game for fruit growing.

My advice for the fruit-curious gardener is to start off with some of the small fruits that are well-adapted to Maryland’s climate and soils. Strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, grape, and currants get their generic “small fruits” name because the plants and their fruits are small relative to tree fruits. Apple, European pear, peach, cherry, plum, and apricot are all popular tree fruits in the Rosaceae (rose) family. They also grow well in Maryland and many people plant or inherit them without fully understanding their requirements and challenges. As a result, we get a ton of tree fruit problem questions every growing season through Ask Extension.

If you had your heart set on planting apple and peach trees this year, please put down the mail-order catalog or close the browser window showing an everyday gardener picking bushels of fruit from a pristine apple tree and consider this:

  • Small fruits are less expensive to buy and maintain and take up less garden space. Even dwarf apple fruit trees can take up 75 sq. ft. of space. 
  • Small fruit plants are easier to incorporate into a home landscape. They are also easier to prune and manage and to remove if they don’t work out or eventually succumb to old age or disease. (Mature grape plants with their massive root systems are the exception). Removal of a fruit tree can be costly.
  • It’s easy to overcrowd a part of your yard with fruit trees by planting them too close to each other, to structures, or to other trees in the landscape. Shading leads to poor growth, pest and disease issues, and low yields.
  • Fruit trees need to be trained and pruned in a careful and timely manner, especially in the first 3-4 years. Small fruits tend to be more forgiving regarding training and pruning. 
  • Yes, small fruits have plenty of potential pests and diseases but they can be grown organically with very good success. Some problems can be tolerated, like the fuzzy gray mold fungus that attacks strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry fruits in wet weather. Others can be prevented or managed through good gardening practices (like proper spacing and pruning) or applying an organic pesticide (like spraying lime sulfur in early spring to reduce disease pressure).
  • Tree fruits, conversely, have more insect pests and diseases that are more difficult to prevent and manage without synthetic pesticides. Trees must be monitored more closely for signs and symptoms of problems. Even if you spray effective pesticides at the correct time, you can end up with poor control if your sprayer is not capable of covering the entire tree including the tops and bottoms of the leaves. Multiple applications are usually needed to control the major pests and diseases.
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Thinking about getting honeybees? Some food for thought

With the huge losses of biodiversity that we are seeing across the world, a prominent example that became very close to people’s hearts is that of the large pollinator losses and the very important consequences that they could have on the well-being of our ecosystems and ourselves. In this context, a very large movement started seeking to “save the bees,” which has had a number of expected and unexpected consequences. One of the latter is the very significant increase in the adoption of honeybee hives by homeowners with little to no experience in honeybee husbandry, especially with the goal to “help bees” so they won’t go extinct. Although the goal of doing this is very genuine and well-intentioned, there are a number of complexities that come with this decision, which I would like to talk about in this post.

Are the bees dying?

The short answer is yes… kind of. Let me explain. As we mentioned in previous posts, there exists a very large diversity of bees (for example, only in Maryland there are about 400 native bee species!), and it is very clear that trends in biodiversity are negative for bees, as for many other groups of insects, plants and other animals. From that respect, we can say that many native bees are indeed dying, and it is key that actions are taken to provide more healthy habitat for them to survive.

That said, it is important to understand that honeybees are actually non-native livestock in our region (the group of bees that honeybees belong to are native to Eurasia and Africa, not to North America). Honeybees are managed and non-native insects that are reared by beekeepers to produce honey and other materials (e.g., wax, propolis). In places where honeybees are native, local peoples have been using their materials for generations, and in those regions, honeybees have not only been important from a production perspective, but also from a cultural one (read here to learn a bit more about some of these traditional systems).

As for all livestock, honeybees have health issues that need to be treated if they occur. For example, honeybees suffer from serious parasite and viral infections, appear to be negatively affected by certain pesticides applied to the plants they collect pollen and nectar from, and seem to also be affected by environmental stressors such as changes in the diversity of the landscape and the quality of the plants they feed on. All of this increases the real potential to reduce the health of colonies and, if left untreated, decimate them.

bee on orange milkweed flowers
Photo: M. LaBar (CC).
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January is for garden planning

I spent the early days of January 2023 thinking about the vegetable garden I won’t be planting until March. I’ve ordered my seeds, and I’ve gone so far as considering drawing a map of what goes where. (I may not get beyond considering, though it would be smart if I did—see below—but planning in two dimensions is always hard for me, and I’m pretty good at knowing how much I can grow in my 400 square feet, just not necessarily where exactly it’s going to go.) There is absolutely no need to start all this quite so early, but I like knowing that the seeds I want won’t run out before I get to them, and I had the time and enthusiasm, so there we are.

Since I don’t have room to grow everything I might want to, I have to make some choices. When I was a newbie gardener, I always bought too many seeds, and… okay, I still buy too many seeds, but at least I have a method now! So I thought I’d share it in case it’s of help to anyone.

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Centering vegetables

In the days after Thanksgiving, I was casting around for something to write about in this blog post, when my husband surprised me at dinner with this masterpiece:

(From a Washington Post recipe; he used pine nuts instead of almonds because that’s what we had.) 

So I began to think about the idea of vegetables as centerpieces for the table. We are not vegetarians and this meal did include meat, but it was off to the side, not the focus of attention. Now, anyone who reads my posts here knows I love growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. When I go out to a restaurant, the kind where vegetables aren’t “sides” but a part of a constructed meal, I generally read the menu descriptions backwards and often choose the entree I’m ordering based on the vegetable accompaniment, deciding that I’m in the mood for parsnip puree or butternut squash risotto and that delicious-sounding salsa, and only afterwards acknowledging that the meat it comes with is just fine. (I’m also a sucker for unusual produce; I once ordered a meal at a restaurant in Oregon that was… probably fish? I don’t recall, but what sticks with me is asking the waiter what sea beans were, and when he was unsure, placing the order anyway and then pulling out my phone to search. They were great; can’t grow them here, alas, because they require a salty environment.)

But the point of those restaurant meals, and most of the ones we eat at home, is that the meat is in the middle. Even many vegetarian meals center a protein element that explicitly substitutes for meat, from plant-based burgers to Thanksgiving Tofurky. Many meals don’t, of course; pasta, pizza, and stir-fries are a few of many examples that combine elements from different food groups. But don’t we tend to describe them in terms of the protein, unless they’re a side dish themselves? How often do we talk about, yum, that dish I made with Chinese broccoli and those wonderful little peppers, oh and by the way I also put in chicken?

I think this is very much a cultural thing, and this is not the place to try tracing it through American history and sociology and noting the influences of and changes in various immigrant communities. I also don’t have the expertise to tell you exactly how much protein you need in your diet based on what food choices you make, and where you can find that protein. I do know, however, that it’s possible to eat healthily while thinking of meals in the way we’ve come to consider inside-out, that is with the vegetables first. This doesn’t have to involve spectacular centerpieces that take hours to cook; the pumpkin stuffed with onion, apple, fennel and cornbread, with maybe a little bacon for fun, can be relegated to the big holiday meal. But vegetables can at least be first in our meal planning part of the time. Maybe even all of the time.

Tamar Haspel, who writes for the Washington Post about larger perspectives having to do with diet, had a recent article about which plant foods are most and least impactful on our climate. (All plant foods are usually better climate choices than meat.) She concluded that fruit, nuts, and row crops such as grains and beans are better in an environmental sense than vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, and tomatoes, because the latter use more fertilizer and pesticides, go bad quicker and so contribute more to food waste, and provide fewer calories per acre. What this doesn’t account for, of course, is growing your own. Your home-grown veggies have zero crop transportation costs, and you will likely be using a lot less in the way of inputs. So I think you can eliminate climate guilt from the equation if you plant a garden. (Buying locally-grown produce would be the next best option.)

What are the best crops to grow if you’re trying to center vegetables on your table? Anything you like and will eat, basically, but if you’re going for the big centerpiece, think about squash or peppers that can be stuffed, beefsteak tomatoes (especially colorful heirloom types), or indeed cauliflower, though you’ll have to keep up with the fertilizer and water to achieve big, fully-formed heads, especially for a spring crop. Also think about ingredients you’d like to add to savory pies, galettes, or other pastries, or quiches and frittatas, or casseroles. Greens make a great base for many other dishes, or can star on their own mixed in with pasta or grains. And there’s always a big salad filled with lettuce, arugula, herbs, cucumbers, etc. – oh, and maybe some meat or fish too.

I’m still trying to shift my thinking from saying, when making meal plans, “We’ll have pork chops and…” “We’ll have macaroni and cheese and…” to a vegetable-centered focus. Here is a big lovely winter squash, I might think—what meat goes with that? Or maybe cheese and nuts? Can they go inside? Those Yellow Cabbage Collards I grew and put in the freezer: great with a little ham and a high-protein grain. I mean, sometimes we’ll just want a steak and potatoes with the greens on the side, but it’s worth doing the vegetable mind trick several days a week. And when there’s a little leftover steak, it might add something to a stir-fry of broccoli and beans.

If you’re looking for recipes, either search online for the vegetable you want to feature and “main dish,” or use a cookbook, vegetarian or not, that makes vegetables or vegetable families one of its primary organizing principles. And when you’re browsing the seed catalogs that are starting to arrive, consider what you might like to grow next year that will feature as the center of your table.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

In praise of turnips

Are you a turniphead?

I sure am. And I’d love to turn this from an insult, with connotations of “lumpy, dull, bitter,” to a compliment meaning “smart gardener”! Turnips are a great cool-weather root crop and an excellent addition to spring and fall meals. They’re easy and quick to grow, offer variety and good taste, plus you can eat the entire plant.

To be fair, some varieties of turnip (and its cousin rutabaga) are used for animal feed, and as human food are valued mostly for their storage capacity. Turnips have fed people in the midst of famine and wartime rationing, and while this is a terrific feat for a plant, it doesn’t lead us to think of them as tender, delicate, spicy little treats. But they really are!

Turnips are a subspecies of Brassica rapa, which also includes many of the Asian greens such as Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and tatsoi, and the Italian rapini. Turnips likely originated in northern Europe, probably one of the first domesticated crops there, and later made their way to Asia, where many new cultivars were created. Until recently, most American seed catalogs listed one type of turnip – Purple Top White Globe – or if you were lucky maybe two or three (including Gilfeather which is actually a rutabaga). And listen, PTWG is a perfectly decent turnip, but it’s easy now to find more interesting fare. Many catalogs will at least sell you seed for one kind of round white Asian turnip, probably Hakurei. Grow these, from seed planted directly in the garden in late March or early April, or in September, and you’ll be rewarded about 45-50 days later with a perfectly white ball, mild and crunchy cut up for a salad, or tender and sweet when braised, roasted, or stir-fried.

You only need to do a few things to help your plants along. Provide a planting bed with loose soil that’s been amended with compost, give your plants plenty of water, and cover them with a floating row cover to keep off insect pests (and also rabbits, if you don’t have a fence. But you have a fence, right?). Turnips grow so fast that it almost doesn’t matter if the leaves get chewed a bit, but since they’re also edible, spicy in a mustardy way and great either cooked alone or mixed with other greens, you don’t want to have to pick off caterpillars. (If you really love turnip greens, you can grow types that produce leaves and not much in the way of edible roots, or add extra nitrogen fertilizer for the same effect. But why not have both greens and roots?)

Perusing catalogs with wider selections, you may find other types of round white turnips. I have no idea what the best one is, so pick what sounds good and experiment. You can also find red-skinned, white-fleshed types, which look really striking, though for some reason I’ve had trouble getting them to produce the few times I’ve tried them.

And then you can branch out into the weird ones, like Hinona Kabu, which I grew for the first time this year.

They are not actually meant to be that twisty and branched (the catalog photo looks like purple and white carrots) but I guess the bed I grew them in still has some issues with compacted soil. But it doesn’t affect the taste. This type of turnip is traditionally pickled, so that’s what I did. This is a fairly spicy turnip and the pickles add a nice potent bite to other foods. I made some squash soup the other night and offered various toppings to add, such as rye bread croutons, green onions, and cubed sausage, and also pickled Hinona Kabu turnips, along with Nadapeño pickles.

The pickling process turned the turnip slices pink – very cute! As with the round white types, there’s no need to peel these, just clean and remove some of the odd side roots.

I’m going to make sure turnips are a regular part of my spring and fall garden from now on. Frankly, there are few easier crops to grow, so why not? Let’s all be turnipheads!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Heat-tolerant tomato varieties we tried in 2022

Farmers, gardeners, and scientists have known for some time that tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is sensitive to heat stress at flowering and fruiting. Pollination and fruit formation can be disrupted when temperatures >90⁰ F. during the day and >70⁰ F. at night. Other fruit problems like yellow shoulders and white internal tissue are also caused in large part by heat stress, especially when determinate (self-topping) varieties are grown and pruned heavily. 

If you feel that high temperatures are reducing tomato flowering and fruiting in your garden you can try moving crops to spots receiving late afternoon shade or you can cover plants with 30% shade cloth (a mesh material that blocks about 30% of sunlight). Another option is to try some of the many heat-tolerant tomato varieties. Heat tolerance is a major focus for tomato breeders around the world. 

This year, some HGIC staff tried four determinate, hybrid varieties developed by Southern breeders (the first three are from the University of Florida) that I started from seed at home. They all have excellent disease resistance:

Florida 91 (F1) 72 days (transplant to harvest). 9 to 11 oz. red tomatoes 

Florida 91 tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Heatmaster (F1) 75 days (transplant to harvest). 7 to 8 oz. red tomatoes 

Heatmaster tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Jamestown (F1) 80 days (transplant to harvest). 9 to 10 oz. fruit. Purported to have a deep red crimson gene and high lycopene content

Jamestown tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Phoenix (F1) 72 days (transplant to harvest). 8 oz. red tomatoes

Phoenix tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld
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Pepper and okra recommendations, and some updates

The end of the summer season is a time to take serious stock of what you grew this year, but sometimes it’s just all about the WOW.

These are the Sherwood Red okra plants that reached over 8 feet tall in my garden. They bore moderately well, with pods that started green and finally turned red when pretty large (6-7 inches long) at which point they were still tender enough to eat–and very tasty, too, with only a small amount of mucosity. (I learned somewhere that the best way to fry okra (okay, the second best way, but the best way without coating and deep-frying) is to make sure it’s dry when it goes into the pan, without even a drop of water combining with the oil. I cut mine into the size pieces I want and then pat them dry between dish towels. Much less gooey using this method.)

And yes, I could still pick from the tops of those plants, since the stems bent down nicely without snapping. It just took a little effort. Possibly they violated the height limitations of my community garden, but I bet they impressed my neighbors too.

Read on for some pepper news…

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