My crabapple tree isn’t one bit crabby

“Fetch me a dozen Crab-tree staves, and strong ones.” – William Shakespeare, “King Henry VIII,” Act V, scene 4 (1612)

M. "Snowdrift" Spring 2017

Crabapple wood is, indeed, a sturdy wood; it also makes an aromatic  barbecue wood and lends itself well to woodworking. In Sunday’s column (Sept. 17, 207), I wrote about my crabapple tree (Malus “Snowdrift”) and how much I enjoy it in the spring when the tree is blooming with masses of delicate-looking pink buds and white blossoms.

I’ve found that my crabapple tree is easy to keep healthy. Although crabapple trees need lots of moisture when they are young, they are not very thirsty trees once  established. I use drip irrigation and water my crabapple tree along with the other plants in my garden berms that require slightly moist soil (this takes an hour of water once or twice a week depending on the temperature). Sometimes I use the soaker nozzle on my hose and supplement the amount of water my crabapple tree gets while it’s working hard to produce all those beautiful blossoms in the spring. I also add compost to the soil around the tree every spring, and I prune away dead, damaged or crossed branches and any suckers that have sprouted after it has stopped blooming. In addition, I measure the new growth of the crabapple tree in late spring and if less than a foot of stem and foliage has sprouted, I add a slow-releasing, high-nitrogen fertilizer to support more new growth.

As you can see from the picture, the birds love my crabapple tree, too; they build a nest in it every year!

I don’t love the crabapples in the fall so much, though. I learned there are hormone sprays that can be applied when the tree is blooming to reduce fruit production. The insecticide Sevin was once used to reduce the amount of fruit produced by trees, but was found harmful to bees. It is now illegal to use Sevin as a fruit inhibitor.
I don’t like to mess with Mother Nature, so I’ll just continue using my crabapples for compost, and enjoying my crabapple tree’s splendor in the spring!

To find out the crabapple tree that is best for you, here is a useful crabapple tree chart online at, compiled by a wholesale tree grower in the Willamette Valley. The chart describes 40 crabapple trees, with color photographs, so gardeners can find the best tree for their property. The chart even provides information about each tree’s resistance to common orchard diseases such as scab, fire blight and powdery mildew.

Happy fall!

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Houseplants that clear the air

“Plant trees. They give us two of the most crucial elements for our survival: oxygen and books.” ~ Alan Whitney Brown, writer and SNL comedian

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Sept. 10, 2017), I wrote about how our garden plants are affected by the smoke we’ve been having recently. We want our outdoor plants and trees to stay healthy; after all, they consume carbon dioxide from the air and produce the oxygen humans depend on for life. According to the NY Times, one acre of trees annually consumes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that produced by driving an average car for 26,000 miles. That same acre of trees also produces enough oxygen for 18 people to breathe for a year.

Similarly, our indoor plants absorb household chemicals from the air that come from carpet, glue, our oven, cleaning products and synthetic materials such as plastic and Chrysanthemumsrubber. In fact, NASA recommends having two or three houseplants every 100 feet in the home to help clear the air of harmful toxins. NASA conducted a study in 1989 that identified several common houseplants that are dynamos when it comes to purifying indoor air. These include: spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum), Dracenas (all species), golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium).

Take a quiz to find out which houseplants are right for you at

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Various ways of propagating lilies

Within the garden’s peaceful scene

Appeared two lovely foes,

Aspiring to the rank of Queen,

The Lily and the Rose.

Yours is, she said, the noblest hue,

And yours the statelier mien,

And till a third surpasses you

Let each be deemed a Queen.

~ William Cowper (1731-1800)

In Sunday’s column (Sept. 3, 2017), I wrote about Shakespeare’s use of the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) to symbolize beauty and purity in his plays. As bulb plants, “true” lilies can be propagated  in the fall by bulb division, scaling, or by gathering seeds.

As a lily bulb matures, it will eventually divide into two parts, called offsets. When you see two plant stems growing close together, that probably means the bulb has split. In the fall, once the leaves have died back, dig up the bulbs and separate the offsets with a clean, sharp knife or pry them apart gently by hand. Replant the offsets immediately in rich, moist soil and allow to overwinter. It may take a few years for the plants to bloom.

Madonna lilies have “scales,” which can be removed and propagated. In the fall, once the foliage has died back, dig up the bulbs, remove the outermost ring of scales from the bulb and discard. Gently remove the rest of the bulbs down to the central “pit.” Dry the scales and pit overnight without washing or cleaning them, and then replant the pit the next day in rich, moist soil. Place the scales between slightly moistened vermiculite or peat moss and place in a plastic bag, making sure that the scales don’t come in contact with the plastic. The bag should not be sealed but loosely folded over, and moisture should not be allowed to collect inside the bag. Place the bag in a dry, dark location that is about 70 degrees F for 8-10 weeks. When the scales have grown into bulblets a little larger than the size of a pea, place the bag in the refrigerator for another 8-10 weeks to chill, and then plant the bulblets out in the spring. Like offsets, it will take a few years before the young plants grown from scales will bloom.

Lilies can also be grown from seed although, unlike “cloning” the plant from offsets or scales, lilies grown from seeds may not look like the parent plant (“true to type”). To gather lily seeds, wait until the flower has dropped its petals naturally and the remaining long, thin, seed capsule has turned brown and soft. Then remove the seed capsule from the stem, place in a paper bag and store in a dry, dark location that is about 70 degree F. for 8-10 weeks. The seeds will then be ready to remove from the pods. Immediately sow the seeds in pots, using rich, moist soil. Like other forms of propagation, young plants will bloom in a few years.

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Ripen pears off the tree

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. ~ William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell,” 1790-1793 

Despite the seemingly odd choice of title for the poem (in a book called “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”), English Romance poet and artist William Blake devotes most of his literary attention in the poem to offering advice for how to live life to the fullest, remaining always respectful of Nature and willing to take responsibility for one’s own actions. In the first line of the poem, quoted above, Blake recommends taking action at the right time, and this is certainly sound advice  for gardeners when it comes to harvesting fruits and vegetables.

In Sunday’s column (August 27, 2017), I shared information about harvesting bounty from the garden. Soon I will also be harvesting pears from my dwarf Ayers pear tree -

Ayers pears ready to harvest

the best crop produced so far since I planted the pear tree in my front yard four years ago. Last year, my pear crop was reduced by an infestation of black spot, a fungal disease that is common to home orchard trees in the Rogue Valley. I applied liquid kelp to the root zone of the pear tree when the black spot first appeared,, and it definitely helped. This year, I did not have the same problem, thank goodness!

Unlike apples, most varieties of pears, including my Ayers pears, do not ripen well on the tree. In fact, according to the OSU Extension Service, pears allowed to tree-ripen will ripen from the inside out, so the center becomes mushy by the time the outer flesh is ready to eat.  When the pears have reached their mature size, they will still be hard, but they should be picked to finish ripening off the tree. Mature, ready-to-ripen pears will usually detach easily from the tree when the fruit is tilted to a horizontal position from its usual vertical hanging position (however, Bosc pears are always more difficult to separate from the spur, says experts at the OSU Extension Service).

Once the pears have been picked, they need to go through a chilling process; otherwise, they will decompose without ever ripening. “Chilling” actually means storing them in a cool, dry place with temperatures between 65-75 degrees F.  Allow Bartlett pears to cool down for 4 to 5 days; Bosc and Comice should be cooled 5 to 7 days; and Anjou, 7 to 10 days. Store-bought pears have already completed their post-harvest chilling process.

To jump start the ripening process, place newly harvested pears in a paper bag and place a ripe banana on top, which will give off ethylene gas, a ripening hormone. The pears soak up the gas and soon start producing their own ethylene gas to finish the ripening process.

Pears are ready to eat when the flesh just below the point where the stem joins the fruit yields evenly to gentle pressure from your thumb when the pear is held in the palm of your hand.

William Blake reminds us that sometimes a bit of delayed gratification is in order, and certainly the sweetness of a perfectly ripe pear is well worth the wait!


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Lessons (re)learned about growing healthy table grapes on my arbor

“You cannot make sweet wine out of sour grapes.”  ~ Thomas Fuller, English historian author and poet (1608-1661)

Neither can you produce a healthy crop of table grapes when the grapevine is infested with fungal disease such as powdery mildew or gray mold (bunch rot) (see my column on August 20, 2017). Here are a few pictures of my arbor grapevine with telltale signs of powdery mildew on leaves, canes and developing fruit. I’ve seen blue jays feeding on the grapes; birds and insects spread the disease from one grape cluster to another.

Pruning back the diseased canes and thinning out new growth  next season will help prevent the disease from reoccurring by increasing air circulation, reducing humidity buildup within the canopy and exposing the grape clusters to more sunlight. Here is a useful publication about growing table grapes on a trellis or arbor from the OSU Extension Service.

If the problem persists, I’ll try applications of fungicide sprays during critical periods of growth. If that doesn’t work, I’ll replace my grapevine with table grapes that have looser clusters – these tend to be more resistant to powdery mildew and gray mold.

Another lesson learned about gardening in Southern Oregon!

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Taming the garden snake: How to coil a hose

“This tool, this thing of beauty, this garden hose holds so much promise.”Tom Harvey, “Don’t Fight with the Garden Hose and Other Lessons I’ve Learned, 2013

In Sunday’s column (July 31, 2017), I wrote about the gardener’s love/hate relationship with the watering hose. We certainly can’t live without them, but we’re plagued daily with tangled, kinky hoses that somehow reach up from the ground and trip us up as we innocently go about our watering tasks. Is there no end to this misery?


First, look for garden hoses that are made from “no memory” materials so the hose is not expecting to be coiled the same way every time. I learned this problem is even more challenging when there are two gardeners in the family and one is right-handed and one is left-handed. This is the case for Jerry and me – he’s a righty and I’m a lefty!

Second, be sure to detach the garden hose from the spigot before coiling it. I’ve found this simple step is important!

Third, stretch out the garden hose flat on the ground before coiling.

Now, there are a few different fourth steps that can be taken. Some gardeners say to begin coiling the hose clockwise while twisting the hose away from you at the same time.

Other gardeners say to use a technique where you coil the hose one way for the first loop and then alternate it for the next loop by coiling it the opposite way.

Other gardeners say to start coiling from the end of the hose rather than the front.

Still other gardeners say to roll a study (rubber) hose into coils rather than wrap them. After laying the hose flat, make your first loop with the nozzle end, fasten the loop securely with a short bungee cord and roll up the hose as you walk it to the storage location.

Try using a combination of these techniques to see which one works best for you. Or invest in a hose reel that allows you to wind up your hose using a lever. Best Consumer Reviews provides a review of the best hose reels on the market. Garden Products Review also offers recommendations for hose reels and garden hoses.

In his book, Tom Harvey observes that there are two options gardeners can take when the hose, inevitably, kinks. We can either practice the Wild West Lasso Whip, which often results in injury to ourselves or innocent bystanders. Or, as Harvey recommends, we can remain calm and meditate our way to empathy and even friendship with our garden hose. He writes, ”Find your inner peace and calmly unkink the hose, for Human Logic dictates that the hose is an inanimate object! It doesn’t have a brain. It’s not trying to piss you off! Be the bigger of the two and you’ll be better off.”

Happy hosing, literary gardeners!

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Take a load off spent blooms

“Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me”

~ Robbie Robertson, “The Weight,” 1968

Now is the time that “gardening” feels suspiciously a lot like plain yard work. I spend my days dodging the sun’s intensity to water, weed and deadhead my plants (I’m behind with fertilizing).

Yet, I have been enjoying my perennial garden this year; for all the flowers’ hard work, they deserve my time and effort to help them “take a load off” their foliage. Many of my ornamental plants particularly benefit from removing their spent blooms. Not only does this reduce the plant’s top weight, it also signals the plant to produce a second round of flowers. I f the plant doesn’t rebloom, it will begin to focus more energy on rejuvenating its foliage and strengthening the root system.

Here are some flowers in my garden that benefit from deadheading: dianthus, coreopsis, Jupiter’s beard, lamb’s ear, daylilies, annual dahlia, balloon flower, marigolds, foxglove and salvia.

Although my poppies are spent, I remove the crispy foliage but keep the stalks and pods for the birds and garden interest. My winter-blooming hellebore are going into hibernation to escape the summer heat, so I’ll cut the stems back to just a few inches from ground level.

Stay cool, and don’t forget to take some time to ”take a load off” and just enjoy the garden!

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Are you growing any “Liberty Tea” in your garden?

“Tea made from a plant or shrub (Ceanothus americanus) grown in Pearsontown about 20 miles from Portland, Maine, was served to a circle of ladies and gentlemen in Newbury Port, who pronounced it nearly, if not quite, its equal in flavor to genuine Bohea [one of three Chinese black teas tossed overboard later in 1773]. So important a discovery claims attention, especially at this crisis. If we have the plant, nothing is wanted but the process of curing it into tea of our own manufacture,” The Boston Gazette, 1768 

After the Boston Tea Party occurred on Dec. 16, 1773, many colonial Americans boycotted black tea, but not everyone could afford the extra expense or time to grind up coffee beans. It was patriotic to serve Liberty Teas that were made from the leaves, and sometimes the roots, of native North American plants. One of the most common was New Jersey Tea, which was made from the leaves of Ceanothus americanus, an aromatic shrub that grows about 3 feet high and is found in the wild as far north as New York and as far west as Texas. However, it is hardy in Southern Oregon as well, and once established, is drought-tolerant. The white flowers that bloom in springtime attract bees and butterflies.

The Pacific Northwest has several native Ceanothus species; perhaps the most common is C. thyrsiflorus, commonly called blueblossom or California lilac. The true blue blossoms are beautiful in the late spring, and the small, glossy, rich green leaves are evergreen. C. gloriosus, or Point Reyes Ceanothus, grows wild along coastal California, where it grows on oceanside bluffs and mountain slopes.

Besides New Jersey Tea, colonial Americans drank tea made from many other native North American plants. Are you growing any of these: red sumac berries (Indian Lemonade Tea), raspberry, strawberry, mints, bergamot, lemon balm, verbena, red clover, chamomile, violets and goldenrod.

To make Liberty Tea, harvest the entire plant and hang upside down in a well-ventilated area out of direct sun, or snip leaves in the morning off a plant that will continue to grow, wash/pat, and dry the leaves in a single layer on trays or between paper towels. When the leaves are completely dry and crisp, store them whole in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several months. Crush the leaves when you are ready to use them. Steep about a teaspoon of dried leaves in a cup of boiling water for about five minutes.


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Blowin’ in the hot wind

“A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.” – Margaret Atwood, “The Blind Assassin,” 2000

I love the way Atwood’s use of figurative language sounds on my tongue when I read it aloud, and the images it conjures up in my mind. On the other hand, I loathe the images of what a hot wind can, and has, done to some of my garden plants.

In Sunday’s column (June 25, 2017), I wrote about the villainous hot summer winds in the microclimate of my back yard in old East Medford, OR. The southwest-facing garden beds receive a lot of late afternoon sun when temperatures are at their highest and air turbulence kicks up gusts of winds that can reach up to 30+ mph. The wind hastens evaporation of water from plant foliage, and plants become heat stressed when the roots can’t keep up with the moisture loss by absorbing water and nutrients from the soil.

The Japanese maples in my backyard suffer the most. Their native land is much more humid in summertime than the Rogue Valley, so I’ve learned to protect them during the hottest days when temperatures soar into the lower 100s (Medford had 11 of those days in 2016).

I provide extra water to my maples, and many of my other plants unless they are specifically referred to as “drought tolerant.” If I’ve planted something new this year, I’ll provide extra water even if it’s supposed to be a drought-tolerate plant. I try to water in the morning so the water has had time to drain to the roots by the time the hottest temperatures of the day, and the hot wind, blows in. I set up an umbrella near my exposed maple to shield it from the late afternoon sun (and it also shades my favorite garden seat!).

Tomatoes and squash don’t like extremely hot temperatures, either, so I cover them with row cover loose enough for air to circulate underneath. It’s not pretty, but it works!

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Sea kale: A veggie made in the shade

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture.” – Thomas Jefferson, ca. 1800

In Sunday’s column, I wrote about some vegetable plants that don’t mind a bit of shade, including: bush beans, beets, carrots, leafy greens, onions, peas, perennial herbs, potatoes and radishes. In addition, some vegetables taste better when the young shoots are covered to prevent exposure to the sun, which stops photosynthesis from occurring and results in paler produce with a more delicate flavor and texture. This shading process is called blanching; vegetables that are often blanched include celery, endive, leeks, white asparagus, lovage, rhubarb and sea  kale.

Thomas Jefferson grew sea kale (Crambe maritima), a perennial member of the cabbage family, at Monticello in the early 1800s. He used clay pots to cover the shoots, but mulch, rocks, boards and plastic pots can also be used. Jefferson ate the tender shoots steamed like asparagus; young blanched leaves can also be cooked and eaten like collards or spinach, and the young flower stalks can be prepared and eaten like broccoli. One species, Crambe orientalis, has a thick root, full of nutrition, that can be used as a substitute for horseradish.

Sea kale blooms in the summertime with a profusion of pretty white flowers. For this reason, it is sometimes grown as an ornamental plant in rock gardens, and the Royal Horticultural Society in England has recognized it as a garden plant of merit. Although its native climate is along northern European coastlines, sea kale is winter hardy down to USDA Hardiness Zone 5 (the Rogue Valley is in Zone 8a/b) and tolerates heat up to AHS Heat Zone 8 (the Rogue Valley is listed as  Zone 6). Sea kale is not difficult to grow as long as it is provided with a sandy loam that drains well but stays moist throughout the hot summer months.

The key to growing sea kale is patience. It’s a long-lived plant, producing for about 12 years, but it should be left alone in the garden for two seasons before harvesting during the third season. Sea kale can be started by seed, but germination is erratic and can take up to three years. It’s easier to start sea kale from root cuttings called thongs. I ordered my thongs online from Cultivariable. They are about 4 inches long and the thickness of a pencil. Before planting, soak the thongs for a few hours and then plant them vertically in the soil, 12-15 inches apart, with the thicker cut about 2 inches below the soil surface. Add some compost to the planting hole and  organic fertilizer, such as liquid seaweed, around the plant, water thoroughly… and wait.

Allow the plant to grow and establish itself for two years. The leaves will die back when the weather turns cold; prune away old foliage, cover the roots with mulch… and wait some more.

After the second growing season, you can either lift the roots in November for early forcing indoors, or you can cover the plant right in the garden and take cuttings for propagating in the spring. To take cuttings, select side shoots that are about as thick as a pencil and cut into 3-6 inch pieces. Making a straight cut on the top and a slanting cut on the bottom will help prevent accidentally planting the thong upside down in the soil.

Harvest blanched sea kale shoots and leaves in early spring when still young. Shoots should be cut at soil level when they are about 8-10 inches long; eat soon after cutting. Stop cutting in May, remove the pots to allow the plants to grow naturally, and enjoy the flowers when they bloom in the summer!

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  • About the Authors

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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