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Black Knot on My Plum

It’s been raining for almost a week. This means the conditions are good for the spread of black knot.

Plum tree with black knot

We have slowly been removing the plum trees from our orchard and the time has come to take down the last tree.  I loved the occasional harvests of Stanley plums which I mostly canned, but I think we will just content ourselves with the three semi-dwarf apple trees.

Black knot gall

This gall, one of several, is about 6 inches long and a little more than an inch in diameter.  I don’t know how this disease got a toe hold because there are no wild trees in the vicinity, but obviously once disease began, it has continued to spread.  The first galls can be quite small and difficult to see, but they don’t take long to grow. We have cut out and burned the galls as they appeared, but we never succeeded in eradication. Over time the tree weakens, the gall grows, and there is no cure but removal of the tree.

Apple blossom

We will remove and mourn the plum tree, but I will concentrate on the apple trees that are just beginning to bloom.

Fall’s Fruitfullness

Lots of people in Heath have an old apple tree or two. Sometimes the apples aren’t beautiful, but they certainly can make good eating. I’ve been using the generous harvest from this unnamed tree to make apple sauce and apple butter.

Apple butter and apple sauce (L-R)

French toast with apple butter or apple sauce makes an easy  and nutritious breakfast.

Black walnuts in their hulls

My neighbor called me to say he and his wife had collected three big buckets of black walnuts from their two back yard trees. They had never gotten a harvest like this. Usually the squirrels got what nuts there were. So, they didn’t know how to handle the nuts, but they knew they could stain hands badly.

Black walnuts hulled

I didn’t really know how to handle them either, but I knew it was hard work. I found out that Iowa State University had good directions, and slightly humorous, on their website. If you want to know what to do with your black walnuts, click here.

Black walnut with its split hull

After putting on good rubber gloves and  three hours of splitting the hull, pulling out the shelled nut, and scraping away ‘stuff’, then washing the nuts, and setting them out to dry, my neighbor gave up. The other two buckets are up for grabs. Not for the squirrels.  In two or three weeks, when the nuts are dry they will get out their little sledge hammer and shell them. According to Iowa State University they can be kept in the freezer almost indefinitely.

Grapes climbing an old apple tree

The dark tangle is the grapevine, with many grape clusters, that is climbing an old apple tree. I can’t get a good photo but the grapes are climbing at least 15 feet or more up the tree.

Wild grape cluster

The grapes are not very big, although there are a lot of clusters within reach. They are not terribly sweet. Will that change if we get a hard frost this weekend?  And of course, there are the thick skins and big seeds.  What to do? What would you do?

That’s my Three for Thursday – apples, black walnuts and grapes.  To see more threes visit Cindy over at My Corner of Katy. Thanks for setting this up, Cindy.

Weeding, Mowing – and a Surprise

Stanley Plum

Mostly I just weeded, and weeded all weekend, while Henry mowed and mowed.  The big job we did, almost, was to take down this Stanley plum tree in our little ‘orchard’ next to the vegetable garden and rasberry patch. This tree has suffered over the years, most notably during the year we lived in Beijing and had renters;  their horses had a fondness for fruit tree bark.  The chain saw gave out before we got down the main trunks. We will enjoy the ‘sculpture’ until we get a new bar for the saw.

Plum black knot

The plum tree we took down was suffering from a severe case of black knot fungus.  There was no way to remove a few branches to clean up the tree and making it bear once more. Black knot is unmistakable and very ugly.  The knots will get bigger and bigger every year, and spread through out the tree, sapping its vitality until the tree is no longer productive. All I can do is keep a close eye on the remaining tree and cut out and burn any further knots.

Stanley plums

Fortunately we will be able to continue enjoying  self pollinating Stanley plums because our other tree is bearing. There is a bit of black knot on this tree, but I will  prune out the few affected branches.  Stanley plums are suseptible to black knot.  I don’t know where the original spores come from, possibly from wild cherry trees in  the area.

My compost pile

I had just gathered up and dumped the spent broccoli plants and last weeds for the day on our unlovely compost pile; Henry had put away the lawn mower and we were preparing to call it a day, when a little red Zipcar pulled up.  Usually when an unfamiliar car arrives at the End of the Road it is because the driver has made a wrong turn, but not this time.

Nick and Emily

The End of the Road was very familiar to Nick Griffin whose stepfather sold us the house in 1979.  He and his fiance Emily had been at a big wedding in Vermont and were so close to the vacation home of his youth that he could not resist trying to find it and see if he would remember any of the house or town after 30 years.  We gave him the tour, beginning with his old treehouse, which did have some renovations some number of years ago – and in need of more. It was fun to look at the changes in the house with them, describe the Fourth of July barn fire, talk about our first neighbor, Mabel Vreeland,  and reminisce about summer vacations and ski weekends with only a fireplace for heat. Brrrrr!  I like knowing about how previous owners enjoyed the house, and hearing about their fond memories.

Hurry to Hawley

Field of greens at Pen and Plow Farm

Who would not like to live on Pudding Hollow Road? It is clearly a road steeped in the history of Hawley, a town settled in 1760, and a unique pudding contest which took place in the late 1770s.  Farms and food have always been important parts of Hawley’s history and culture so I could not resist the opportunity to visit the newest farm and an old established garden, both on Pudding Hollow Road, and both a part of Hawley’s annual Artisan’s and Garden Tour which will be held on Saturday, July 10 from 10 am until 4 pm.

When you turn off Route 8A and cross over the new bridge you are on Pudding Hollow Road, Right across from the tiny town hall is the two year old Pen and Plow Farm, so called because the Velazquez family, Sheila, her son Jason and his wife have all been in the publishing/editorial business , but since early last spring have been turning their creative energies to sustainable farming.

Merlot lettuce at Pen and Plow farm

Sheila, who said she had farmed many years ago and has had varied careers since then, was delighted that her son gave her the nudge (push?) to go back into farming. The family found 21 acres, wooded and clear, with a year round stream. They have planted a large market garden, currently boasting ‘greens’ including reds like Merlot, Red Fire and Red Sails lettuces. These can be purchased among other places, at the new Charlemont Farmer’s Market held on Saturdays at the Hawlemont School.

In addition to the mangelwurzel (for animal feed) corn, squash, and other vegetable fields, they have two Scottish Highland Cows. “They are a good breed for the country,” Sheila said. “ They are hardy and eat brush, poison ivy and wild raspberries.”  I can see that would save on feed bills. They also have chickens and recently added a Jersey milk cow to their holdings.

Jason Velazquez

Jason took time out from his chores to show me how to sharpen and use a scythe, and to talk about his pleasure in being able to return to farming. “Values you learn in a rural childhood are applicable to many walks of life,” and this is one of the reasons he wanted to leave Boston and bring his wife and children to Hawley and to make a farm.

As he showed me all the projects, he explained that they want to learn to do more with less. “Everything we do is rooted in sustainability – what the land can sustain, and the amount of labor we can sustain as a family. We wan to provide our own food, but we plan to farm to a living. We have a commitment to being part of a community that sustains itself.”

As they move towards making a living on the farm they are paying attention to the vegetables that customers prefer. They also sell fresh eggs that have the brilliant yellow yolks that are typical of free range chickens.

Paul Cooper

Paul Cooper, retired neurosurgeon and serious cook, and his wife Leslie have been summering in Hawley since 1981, enjoying the magnificent views of the hills, and tending their gardens.

Cooper toured me around his hillside, showing me new fruit trees, apples, pears, a greengage plum, peaches, and quince. Several years ago they planted two copper beech trees which are still young, but already show signs that they will grow into majestic old trees. There is a special thanks due to people like the Coopers who plant trees that will not come into their noble maturity until they themselves are no longer walking the earth.

There are colorful flower gardens that Leslie tends, daylily borders, and pink honeysuckle vines, not an invasive variety. But Cooper’s favorite garden is the fenced vegetable garden which hints at his passion for cooking.  He grows several kinds of tomatoes, Big Boy, Sun Gold, Early Girl, Celebrity and Donna. Yukon Gold, Corolla and Kennebec potatoes, Fava beans, shallots, leeks, garlic, asparagus and eggplant, “but no peppers, because I hate them,” he said.

Mint is grown in its own circular garden where the lawn mower can keep it under control.  A small herb garden supplies much of the common herbs Cooper needs.

The lettuce was lush and Cooper sighed when he said, “It’s been a lettuce summer,” which is to say cool and damp.

Paul Cooper's lambs

Cooper hasn’t forgotten the main course, He also raises lambs – and he has a large collection of lamb recipes.

The blueberry, raspberry and red currant patches suggest that diners at his table do not leave until there has been a luscious dessert.  Maybe he will find one in The Pudding Hollow Cookbook, written by Tinky Weisblat, another Hawley resident.

Akebia covered pergola at the Cooper's

The Hawley tour includes visits to other farms, gardens and a lunch at one of Hawley’s Great Houses, also on Pudding Hollow Road.

This tour, A Collage of Arts and Gardens Throughout the Town of Hawley is sponsored by the Sons and Daughters of Hawley. Proceeds will help fund restoration of East Hawley Meeting House and the Grove Building. It is hoped that the new bathrooms in the Grove Building will be completed by tour day. For more information about tickets for the  tour call Cyndie Stetson 413- 339-4231.

Betweenthe Rows  June 26, 2010


The first unpleasant surprise was frost!  The 7 am temperature on our thermometer on the north side of the house, but in the sun, said 42 degrees and I rejoiced. But my husband brought in the cat’s frozen water dish from the welcoming platform. The first shock. Then I went out to open our ad hoc cold frame and the inside was all frosty. I’d better mark this frost date in my Journal.

Jewel Black Raspberry

The second, and final, unpleasant surprise of the morning was finding one of the 10 newly planted and mulched black raspberry plants dug up. Who would do that? The deer have munched the hostas, but there’s not much to eat on a new ‘black cap’.  I will have to rush out and replant this, but I fear the roots may have dried out beyond reviving.

Rangoon rhododendron

Fortunately there was a pleasant surprise. The Rangoon rhododendron’s buds are preparing to open, as are the buds on Boule de Neige.  A tiny red primrose was also blooming this morning. I haven’t been paying very much attention to this bed next to the Cottage Ornee, but I got here in time. Buds of the tree peonies are swelling. It won’t be long.

Beauty of Moscow lilac

The reason I bought Beauty of Moscow is because the fat pink buds are just as beautiful as the big double white flowers. I bought this lilac locally from the Shelburne Farm and Garden Center several years ago.

The lovely blossoms on this ancient apple tree next to the Cottage Ornee are no surprise. The Cottage was sited to nestle between, and almost under, this apple tree and a large high bush cranberry (virburnam), both of which suffered terribly in the Ice Storm of 2008. Yet it still blooms, full of grace and determination.

All Kinds of Apple Trees

View from the kitchen stove

When we first moved into our old farmhouse in Heath in November of 1979, I cooked in what the previous owners called ‘the summer kitchen’ although there was no other kitchen. It was small and oddly shaped because of the stairway that went up to a loft/attic space. The 1930s era stove was on the north wall next to a small window that looked up the hill, across the field to an old apple tree.

When the wind blew through the many drafty windows, that first bitter winter the view out the kitchen window was not inspiring. But, in the spring, when the apple tree burst into glorious bloom I remembered all the reasons we had moved to the country.

We don’t actually harvest many apples from the tree on the hill. One visitor said it might be a Baldwin, and Baldwin apples were a common variety in our area. When you drive through town you can still see the remnants of old orchards, and the promise of one new orchard growing a whole variety of apples.

I no longer look out of that particular window when I am cooking, but the view to the north is one of my favorites in the spring.

Apple trees bloom early in the season and are welcome and valuable for that very reason. We planted some dwarf apple trees that are now about 15 feet tall. We planted heirloom varieties as well as Freedom and Liberty, disease resistant hybrids. Only the Liberty and Freedom survived tenants we had one year. They had horses, and the horses seemed to be very fond of romping beyond fences and of apple bark.

I confess that we have not taken very good care of the surviving trees which is a tribute to their hardiness and disease resistance, the very reasons we chose them. Liberty and Freedom produce medium sized red apples that ripen in September and are good for eating and cooking.  Given good conditions they can be stored for up to five months. We harvest too few apples to store, but we get some good eating.

A friend gave us a Sargent crabapple, a small ornamental tree with good disease resistance, which we planted in the center of the Sunken Garden about 15 years ago. In the spring the tight red buds make the tree seem to blush; when the flowers open the tree is a cloud of blossom. I have not pruned it to the spare sculptural shape that many people manage, but it remains a small tree not much more than eight feet tall with a spread of twice that. It produces tiny red fruits that are of no use in the kitchen, but the birds like them.

Sargent crab May 2009

Even though I do not  rigorously control the tree, it takes a lot of pruning. I do what I consider a radical pruning every spring, but there is more to do the following spring.  They can be given another pruning in summer if you wish, but I haven’t done that.

Sargent crab, like other crabapples, is not fussy. It needs full sun, but the soil can be heavy or loamy, acid or alkaline. It prefers well drained soil, but my Sargent crab thrives in a very wet spot.

The Sargent crab is a small crabapple, but there are many other beautiful crabapples most of which reach a height of between 15 and 25 feet. They bloom in many shades. SugarTyme is one of the most popular of these ornamental trees. It has white spring blossoms, green foliage and red fruits.

Royalty crabapple is notable for the deep reddish foliage and dark red flowers, while Red Splendor has reddish foliage but pink blossoms and red fruits that do not fall off the tree. No litter.

Profussion is a larger tree, reaching a height of 25 feet, with at least as wide a spread. The flowers are purple-red  with bronze-y green foliage. As you might guess from its name, this variety is noted for the profusion of bloom.

For those who like the grace of a weeping tree there is Red Jade. This crab grows to 12 feet and just as wide – a lovely pink umbrella of a tree that bright red fruits in the fall.

If you are looking for a crabapple that you can actually eat, Whitney is the choice. Whitney’s one to two inch fruits are yellow and red, perfect for making jelly or a spiced pickle.

One stunning way to use crabapples would be as an allee, planting them on either side of drive or road. Here in New England we are aware of the beauty of magnificent maples along old roads, a kind of municipal allee. Allees of large deciduous trees, or graceful birches have been used on great estates leading up to stately homes. I think an allee planted with a humbler tree, a blooming tree, is a beautiful way to lead up a long drive to a house in the country.

Allees remind us of the power of massing a single plant. That power is all the more dramatic when you are talking about trees.

Whether you want fruit to eat, food for the birds, or a big spring bouquet, there is an apple tree for you.

Between the Rows  April 24, 2010

Laughing Dog Farm

Daniel and Divya Botkin at Laughing Dog Farm

December is not usually a good time to visit a small farm in action, but when I visited Daniel Botkin and his wife, Divya, at Laughing Dog Farm in Gill I got a tour of a thriving garden in the big hoop house (or long tunnel) and a lunch of delicious vegetable soup with bread and goat cheese made that very morning. This is local food at its finest.

I had specifically gone to Laughing Dog Farm to learn about making garden structures out of black locust.  I already knew black locust is a rot resistant wood. I’m still using fence posts I was given 25 years ago – and I don’t think they were newly cut then.  I did not know that black locust is considered a weed tree and grows quite fast. You would think this would make it easily available, but not so. It does not make good lumber because it doesn’t grow straight and is not harvested in the same way as maple, oak and other timber trees.

Still, if you can find a supplier of black locust, take advantage of the opportunity. Daniel Botkin has built numerous arbors, trellises and low hoop houses out of black locust. Sometimes he uses the poles, but he also makes use of  slabs and flexible thin slats. These sturdy structures, made of crooked logs and rough slabs, show a slightly manic sense of humor as well as engineering skill. They are not what you will find in an elegant flower garden, but they will last for years, and make use of that extra dimension in the garden.

Black locust trellis

In the summer Botkin’s  three plus acres of market garden rise up towards the sun. We are all familiar with bean poles and pea fences, but cucumbers also love to be grown on trellises. Melons can be placed in net bags like those onions come in, and supported on a trellis.

Botkin is a proponent of permaculture and no till techniques.  His  land is a steep hillside which he has terraced using black locust slabs and ‘poopy hay’, the bedding from his goat barn. The advantage to goat manure is that it can be used immediately in the garden, unlike cow manure or my chicken manure which need to be composted to be safe for plants.

December veggies in the hoop house

In mid-December parsley, leeks and kale were still growing in the heavily mulched beds outdoors, but  I was really stunned by the variety of vegetables growing in the hoop house, all manner of greens and a few sunny calendulas. This long structure, made of ‘hoops’ and special heavy plastic is not heated, but it is warm enough to provide cold hardy greens until spring.  When I visited I even got to eat a few Sungold cherry tomatoes.

Low tunnels made of black locust slats

Botkin had just finished building a new low tunnel with flexible slats of milled black locust that will retain their shape as they dry. Low tunnels can be used in a hundred ways, Botkin said. They can be covered with plastic in very early spring to start spinach and other greens. An extra advantage is that you will foil the insects that plague brassicas.       During the summer the plastic sides can be rolled up and the ends left open making that area very warm for crops like peppers and tomatoes that like and need extra heat.  Or the plastic can be removed entirely for the summer and the skeleton can be used for vining crops like cucumbers.

In late summer or fall, with the plastic in place, a late planting of hardy greens can go in. Botkin said, “I don’t operate with a plan. I look at the space and decide what will give me the highest value. Or I might throw down what seeds I happen to have in my apron.”

Laughing Dog Farm is small, but there is a lot of work to be done to bring vegetables, f.ruits, berries, herbs and flowers to local farmer’s markets. I was reminded that for 20 years Botkin was a teacher and counselor before he devoted himself to full time farming in 2000. He has not stopped teaching. In the summer he has apprentices who live at the farm and give a certain amount of labor for room and board while they learn the pleasures and challenges of growing food.

Botkin explained that there are networks that include the World Wide Opportunties on Organic Farms ( and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (  that help pair young people who are interested in learning with small farmers who need extra seasonal labor.

Beyond teaching interns and apprentices, Botkin holds occasional workshops at Laughing Dog Farm and has put up a website that explains his philosophy and gives enormous amounts of information about gardening. It includes a series of very short videos on designing hoop houses, growing greens in a hoop house, planting intensively and working with goats. Some teachers just cannot give up teaching, no matter what else they are doing.

Botkin is also an enthusiastic seed saver. In the olden days gardeners and farmers routinely saved seed from their own plants, but now seed is easy to buy. Aside from the issues of hybrized seeds that won’t come true, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds that have many people concerned, Botkin says that saving seed gives the gardener control over his produce, and over his own food security.

A vegetable garden does provide a measure of security, of good health, and pleasure. Those are good things as we go forward into a new year.  ###

Between the Rows   January 2, 2010

Apple Harvest

These apples may not be the most beautiful, but they are pretty sound inside which means I spent the afternoon peeling, chopping and boiling them down to make 5 quarts of apple butter, a delicacy I only discovered last year.

Two quarts have already been passed along to my oldest daughter and her family. They like apple butter on black pumpernickel bread, we like it on French toast.  There is hardly any way to use apples that is not delicious, in sauce, in stuffings, in chutney, in ‘mincemeat’, in oven pancakes, in pies, cakes and cookies. Oh, and you can eat them right out of hand.

Bloom Day May 15, 2009

Dandelions and violets in the flowery mead are still blooming.

Johnny jump ups are scattered everywhere. Where do they all come from? I wonder what a johnny jump up seed looks like flying on the wind. I’m not sounding like much of a gardener so far.

Many of the daffodils are starting to wind down, but others like this pheasant eye daff (Poeticus) bloom late. When I visited the daffodils at Tower Hill Botanic Garden last year I learned that all the shades of pink in pink daffodils come from the red genes in the pheasant eye.

How is it that I never noticed this low growing cotoneaster bloomed? Is this really the first year? Name lost.

Lilac season is just beginning. This is the ancient white lilac that was here when we bought our house in 1979. There is a hedge of white lilacs melding into a row of the old lavender lilacs. I’ve added a Beauty of Moscow whose beautiful pink buds open to white, Miss Willmott who won’t bloom until at least next year, deep purple Ludwig Spaeth, and the pretty pink Miss Canada who will not bloom until a bit later.

We’ve got a couple of semi-dwarf plum trees, and sometimes we get plums. When there are extras I can them and I think they are just beautiful in their juice.

We planted a sour cherry years ago. Any cherries that develop go to the birds. I was racing the rain when I took this photo.

We have apple trees  in bloom – at the edge of the lawn, along the drive (actually the town road), in the fields, next to the vegetable garden and

most spectacularly, the Sargent Crabapple in the center of the Sunken Garden.

For more beatiful blooms go to May Dreams Gardens. And thank you Carol for giving us this great way of seeing what is going on all across the country.