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Cultivate ’14: Horticulture Conference for Industry Geeks

Pink Zazzle Gomphrena

The Cultivate Conference draws many plant breeders to show off their latest varieties: petunias, chrysanthemums, coleus, roses, heucheras, gomphrena… there were even new varieties of vegetables and herbs. Tables holding the new introductions filled corridors outside of the main show floor. If I lived farther south, my garden would include gomphrena.

Go to a garden or horticulture industry conference! You can learn all kinds of great things by talking to vendors on the show floor—and you can examine their products and marketing literature first-hand! If that’s not enough, most conferences run seminars where you can learn about things that interest you from industry experts—book authors, magazine writers, certified industry specialists, and horticulture Illuminati.

I recently attended Cultivate ’14 in Columbus, Ohio. This conference is clearly for members of the horticulture and gardening industries. Show floor vendors are manufacturers and growers of hort industry products while attendees are, generally, businesses that sell gardening stuff to you and me.

Recharge! Have Your Mind Blown!

Alum Creek State Park

To reduce my cost of attending Cultivate ’14, I stayed at a campground in Alum Creek State Park about 17 miles north of the convention center. Each morning I drove past this waterway which looked pretty surreal in the right light.

I saw things at Cultivate ’14 I’d never imagined, and learned a bit about how all those flats and pots of healthy plants find their way to your local garden centers and big-box stores. I saw hundreds of new varieties of plants being introduced by breeders: flowers and foliage that will grace gardens everywhere starting in 2015.

I also met many fascinating industry players: magazine editors and publishers, conference organizers, soil developers, planter manufacturers, plant breeders, greenhouse builders, nursery automators… the list is much longer. Find a show and attend it. If you can’t afford to travel, find a show near you. What you see might change the way you think about gardening.

Photos tell more of the story.

Columbus's North Market

On the opening day of Cultivate ’14, I hosted a round table as a representative of the Garden Writers Association. Because the show floor opens on the second day of the conference, I had plenty of time to explore Columbus. Barely a block from the convention center, I found North Market. This old building contains several restaurants and boutique stores with plenty of seating for diners. Outdoors, farmers sell homegrown vegetables and fruit. North Market is a popular hangout for Columbus residents.

The Cultivate '14 show floor

An aisle of the conference show floor could accommodate as many as 62 vendors, though many vendors occupied two or more booth spaces. There were 27 such aisles!

Nursery automation

One of the first booths I visited at Cultivate ’14 contained a whole bunch of greenhouse technology. This machine “pots up” flats. In back is a flat of young plants each in a finger-sized cell. In front are standard nursery flats like what you find in a garden store. The 12 metal objects hanging above the trays are pincers that transplant the seedlings. The pincers drop into a row of cells in the rear try, grab the seedlings, lift them clear, carry them over an unused row in the larger trays—spreading apart as they move, and then plunge the seedlings into the larger trays. In the photo, the machine has already transplanted three rows of seedlings. For the show, the engineers slowed the machine to 2% of its normal speed and it was impressive; it could transplant that entire flat of seedlings in less than a minute. I left the booth thinking, “Who knew?” I’d never even thought about how nurseries handle the seedlings we buy in garden centers.

Horticulture industry robot workforce

That’s a robot out for a walk with its handlers. The robot performs a very simple nursery task: it moves potted plants from one place to another. I didn’t know: when a nursery sets plants in individual pots, workers group the pots closely at one end of a “runway.” The close spacing helps the plants develop as they adjust to the new containers. Once the plants begin to interfere with each other, workers redistribute the pots along the runway, leaving space between the plants so they can fill out over the sides of the containers. Well… not so much workers. Robots like this one can work with minimal supervision as they pick up the crowded pots and move them along the runway, setting them down in a programmed pattern.

In the garden at Ohio State University

Cultivate ’14 included an opportunity for attendees to visit a test garden at Ohio State University. We found hors d’oeuvres, wine, and beer in an attractive and well-maintained garden. Along one of the paths, someone had completely misconstrued the purpose of a wheelbarrow… with good results.


Fruit Flowers for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

Apple blossoms on Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

My apple trees had more blossoms than in any past season. If all become fruit, I’ll need to rent a stand at the farmers’ market.

What an awesome spring we’re having! Sure, it was unpleasantly cold until it wasn’t supposed to be. Sure, perennials remained dormant until early April. But oh, my! Daffodils and hyacinth exploded in April, and eventually warm days coaxed forsythia to bloom.

I got my spring vegetables planted. Pea vines are about five inches tall and starting to wrap tendrils onto the trellises. Five types of lettuce are putting out second leaves and pak choi plants are starting to develop their own distinctive shape. Carrot plants are just sending up their first feathery leaves, as are the cilantro and dill seedlings that have emerged in my herb garden.

Large leaves are emerging from between the two thin first leaves of the spinach seedlings, and the onion sets have sent up spikes more than four inches tall. It has been warm enough for the past week to plant tomato and pepper seedlings in the garden and so far I’ve set out 28 tomato plants.

Peach blossoms on Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

The old broken down peach tree blossomed as if its life depended on it. It has done so every year since the trunk snapped at least five years ago. Though the crown of the tree rests partially on the ground and connects to root solely via a bark-covered hinge, the tree consistently produces a fine crop.

There are plenty more seedlings to plant, and many, many seeds as well. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

Best Ever Spring for Fruit Trees

My fruit trees were very cautious this year. Some years they’ve burst into full bloom in early April, but they had none of that this spring. Even as warming soil coaxed spring vegetables into action, the fruit trees held out. Buds swelled and looked ready to pop for weeks, but low nighttime temperatures kept the buds tight. My last blog post was about those fruit flower buds.

Pear blossoms on Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

My pear tree appears robust until you look closely at its trunk. The trunk’s core is hollow from about the soil line to three or four feet above the ground. In 2008 I mail-ordered two trees to replace the old pear tree but they’ve yet to produce fruit. In the meantime the old, sick pear tree continues to make fruit and this year it’s outdoing itself.

Only in the past week, meteorologists assured us we’d have no more nights below 48F degrees. The fruit trees seem to have gotten the news. The blossoms popped and we had several days of awesome color.

That’s it. The fruit trees bloomed and temperatures soared (87F degrees today) and petals plunged to the ground. A few still hang on, but the pear, peach, and apple trees have had their showiest moment of the season and will now get down to growing fruit.

I can’t remember a better spring start for fruit trees in central Pennsylvania. Perhaps this will be a bumper crop year; well-needed after last year’s brutal fruit-killing spring.

Learn about Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

Purple Leaf Plum blossoms on Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

Since 2008, I’ve been posting photos of this tree and telling readers it’s a Moonglow pear. I mail-ordered a Moonglow and a Bartlet pear tree in 2008 and planted them close together so they’d cross-pollinate. So far, they’ve produced no fruit. And, since last season I’ve been suspicious that they’re not actually Moonglow and Bartlet trees. They came labeled as Moonglow and Bartlet, but they look identical. Flowers, leaves, colors, textures are as if they are a single tree.

Maybe real Moonglow and Bartlet trees are indistinguishable from each other, but these trees also look little like other pear trees I’ve seen. Finally, yesterday I gave in to my suspicion and tracked down the Purple Leaf Plum tree—which is obviously what I planted. It’s a very sad waste of SIX YEARS’ anticipation that I’d soon be harvesting pears from my beautiful trees. Apparently, Purple Leaf Plum trees produce edible fruit, so they might not be a total loss… but they’re sure taking their time getting around to it.

Blueberry blossoms on Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

As the fruit tree blossoms are dropping petals, my blueberry plants are in full-bloom. They’ve grown enough that I might get two or three handfuls of berries this season. I’m so looking forward to years when the blueberry plants are three or four feet tall and five feet in diameter.


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Grow a Fig Tree from a Cutting

Fig cutting rooting in water

The last cutting from my brother’s fig tree still stands in a pint-sized canning jar. Even when I took the cuttings out of the shipping container, some had sprouted leaves. The cuttings didn’t add much growth at all while rooting in water.

Wanna grow a fig tree? It helps to know someone who already has a fig tree. My brother (Kris, who has written a few guest posts for this blog) has at least one fig tree. He taught me how incredibly easy it is to grow a new one.

In April, Kris mailed to me six cuttings from his fig tree. These were about six inches long and each ended in a terminal bud—Kris had pruned his tree and made the cuttings from pruned branches.

After removing the cuttings from the mailer, I set them cut-side-down in a pint-sized canning jar with about an inch of water. This I placed on my enclosed porch where it has remained since.

Fig Twigs Sprout Easy

Within a month, one cutting sprouted roots. When the roots were about three inches long, I transferred the cutting to half a milk carton filled with very moist potting soil. The cutting put out leaves and grew taller and it looks encouragingly like a small tree.

After I removed the first rooted cutting from the canning jar, a second cutting put out roots. Then a third rooted while a fourth obviously died.

I planted the two rooted cuttings in half milk jugs, and a month later those look quite happy. Another cutting has made it into soil, and the remaining one still sits in the canning jar. It doesn’t seem stressed, but it only just started to grow roots. I’ll move it to soil soon.

Fig Tree Hardiness

Fig trees are, apparently, nearly as indestructible as weeds. They aren’t naturally large to begin with, but they don’t mind if you prune to limit their height and girth. This makes it possible to maintain a fig tree in a planter.

Young fig tree from a cutting

After a few months in potting soil, a rooted fig twig has grown into a very promising shape. I’ll most likely plant two of these in larger containers and move them inside for the winter. The rest will go in my yard where it will be sink-or-swim: they’ll receive no special protection against winter cold.

Most experts report that figs are hardy only down to zone 7. Fortunately, there are varieties claiming hardiness down to zone 5. In colder hardiness zones, fig trees die back significantly in winter but recover and actually grow fruit in the following season.

Many fig enthusiasts in cooler zones hedge their bets and plant in moveable containers. As leaves drop in autumn, they take the planters indoors. Alternatively, they wrap their trees in plastic or burlap and stuff in autumn leaves or straw to provide insulation. With either strategy, it helps to limit the tree’s size through regular pruning.

When you decide to add figs to your kitchen garden, find someone who is growing figs in your area. When you get cuttings from them in spring, ask how they winter over their trees—if they recommend special treatment beyond what you’re willing or able to provide, at least plan to drag your fig trees into a garage or shed after they drop leaves in autumn. With cuttings and patience, if you want a fig tree, you can grow that.


You Can Grow That celebrates gardening each month. The list of this month’s celebrants and links to their posts are at You Can Grow That.


Dad’s Fresh Fruit for Post Produce

sour cherries

Sour cherries from my dad’s front yard have gone into pies and jelly and will end up in syrup as well.

When I woke up this morning I realized that today is Post Produce and I hadn’t posted last night! Emptying my dad’s house in Ithaca has me scattered, so my post and linky widget are up quite late this month. Please don’t panic. The linky is live for nearly two weeks (scroll to the end of this post to find it), so if you want to participate, you’ve plenty of time to report on what you’re eating from your garden.

Dad’s Cherry Orchard

My father doesn’t have a vegetable garden, but he’s still intent on keeping his land productive. Ten or more years ago, he planted a sour cherry tree in his front yard, and the tree has been with fruit for three weeks. After our first harvest, I baked a cherry pie, grabbed a slice for myself, and left the rest in the kitchen so he could stop by and pick it up while I visited my family in Lewisburg.

dad picking raspberries

That’s my 93-year-old dad picking raspberries from the brambles he planted two years ago. The harvest has been modest, but for all the fresh canes growing this season, there’s great promise for next year’s harvest.

I’ve since harvested twice more. I made jelly that included cherry juice in the mix, and I stored some cherry juice that I’ll soon make into syrup and can. I use such syrup on pancakes, waffles, and ice cream; in marinades for meats; and in drink mixes. My dad, I think, will use it on ice cream.

There’s one more harvest of cherries on the tree but they’ll have to wait because an afternoon thunderstorm diminished my enthusiasm for picking.

Dad’s Raspberry Farm

My brother, who now owns the family farm, cleared some land a few years back and planted chestnut trees. My dad bought a whole bunch of raspberry plants—both red and black raspberries—and established a modest bramble patch along one edge of the chestnut plantation.

Wild black raspberries

While my dad picked his domesticated raspberries, I pounded underbrush around the chestnut trees and found plenty of wild black raspberry plants producing terrific fruits.

I’ve been out to the farm with my dad twice in the past few weeks to harvest berries with my dad. Considering the number of plants out there, the harvests have been modest. I’ve found more wild black raspberries among the chestnut trees than my dad and I have harvested from the cultivated plants.

So far, I’ve made and canned three cups of black raspberry syrup, and a batch of jelly that included raspberry juice in the mix. Yes. I’m talking about the same batch of jelly that included cherry juice. My brother, also, made a small batch of raspberry jelly.


While picking berries with Dad, I noticed two raccoons amble up a half-fallen tree, spy on us for a bit, and then curl up for a nap. This has nothing to do with celebrating homegrown produce, but it was kind of fun.

My dad’s apartment isn’t well appointed for preserving large batches of fruit, it makes sense that my brother and I take on these tasks. For me, the best part of the story is that my 93-year-old dad continues to plant trees and brambles. He’s really into growing Black Locust and Redbud trees from seed, and has set several young trees out near my brother’s chestnut starts. I hope I’m still around when my dad harvests his trees for the lumber.

Now You Post Produce!

Write a blog post about your homegrown produce. What are you harvesting? How are you preparing it to eat? What’s about to ripen? Return here and use the linky widget below to link to your post.


Good Gardeners Kill Peaches

Peach blossoms in spring

Peach trees are very showy in spring. A single branch may produce dozens of blossoms. When most of them grow into fruit, you can end up with very tiny peaches.

I spent about 45 minutes today in my small kitchen garden killing peaches. This might sound crazy, but it’s an important spring task for peach-growers—and for people who grow other stone fruits as well. While I was killing peaches, it occurred to me that anyone can grow a peach tree and I have a rather extreme argument to convince you.

So, please stick around a few minutes and I’ll try to make this all make sense: You can grow peaches. And when you do, it’s a real good idea to kill a whole lot of them.

Why I was Killing Peaches

When it comes to reproduction, a typical peach tree goes crazy! In early-to-mid spring, a tree produces hundreds of blossoms. It’s an awesome display as grand as any flowering ornamental tree.

A peach-laden branch leads to small peaches

The 14-inch section of peach branch in this photo holds ten young peaches. I wish I’d cleaned this up two weeks ago, but today I removed all but two peaches from this branch. Between two peach trees, I discarded at least 200 peaches. Throwing them away is painful, but I’d rather grow large, meaty peaches instead of tiny ones with only a thin layer of flesh.

Problems arise when a majority of the blossoms succeed with pollination. By late summer, any one branch may have dozens of tiny, green peaches holding promise of a summer harvest. Left alone, most of those peaches will likely ripen into delicious, juicy fruits and that would be bad.

With so many fruits pulling water and nutrients through a single branch, none of them get a whole lot of food to store; they all end up tiny. To get big peaches, you need to cull just-formed fruits so a branch holds only two, three, or four, depending on the length of the branch.

I demonstrated the whole thing in a two minute and 20 second video:

You Can Grow That

Peach Trees for any Space

For a space-challenged gardener, growing a whole tree can seem prohibitive; in a small yard, won’t a tree shade out the entire garden? Happily, that needn’t be the case. Growers have developed peach trees in a variety of sizes—through both grafting and breeding. Shop around (Google “dwarf peach tree”) and you’ll find a lot of choices. Some dwarf peach trees are so small they’ll grow happily in containers on a deck or patio.

If a tree-shaped dwarf is no more practical than a full-sized tree, consider a foray into espalier. This is a method of training a tree to grow flat—usually against a wall. The technique is simple but it requires patience because you cut away whole branches during pruning and preserve only the ones that run parallel to the wall. It may take five years of annual cutting and, perhaps, binding branches with wires to develop a tree in your garden, but an espalier will produce peaches just as fine as any other peach tree.

Fruit tree espalier against a garage

Growing a peach tree is ridiculously easy to do. Mine get direct sunlight from about 11 AM until five or six PM and they never fail to produce a crop. Ideally, plant your trees where they’ll get sun all day. In other posts I’ve written about planting fruit trees and maintaining them. Follow links below for specific information.

One of the trees I spent time with today is unusual. At least six years ago, it fell over. The tree’s trunk had been rotting for years but I didn’t notice until I found most of the tree resting on the lawn. The trunk remained rooted, and there was a hinge of wood connecting the roots to the tree’s crown… and I never cleaned up the mess.

Broken trunk of a happily-living peach tree

Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say my peach tree broke. Rather, it fell over, flexing a hinge of wood that remained intact. Seems as though more than two-thirds of the wood is missing along at least 32 inches of trunk, but the tree doesn’t really care.

Each year since, the tree has burst into blossom in spring, pushed out leaves as the petals dropped, and produced copious amounts of fruits. Expecting the tree to die quickly, I did little for it in the two years after it fell. However, because of its stellar performance in those years, I’ve pruned it once or twice, I cull young fruits in the spring, and I treat it against insect damage—but I haven’t fertilized it and I haven’t cut out invasive trees that have sprouted around its trunk.

Heck, the year our peach tree fell, we planted its replacement. That one produces quite well, but the broken one produces better. Apparently, my broken-down peach tree doesn’t know it has a problem. If I can harvest a decent crop each year from my severely challenged peach tree, you most certainly can be successful with one of your own. You can grow that.

Learn What Else You Can Grow

Life is better if you garden. You Can Grow That is an initiative of gardeners who spread that message through their jobs, their leisure time, their writing, and (most specifically) through their blogs. Visit the You Can Grow That website to see what others are saying to encourage gardening everywhere.

Muskrat Love

early spring flowers

These delicate flowers grew near a stream and were the earliest blossoms I saw this spring (after crocuses).

Finally we have spring-like weather in central Pennsylvania but I’m not home to enjoy it. When I consider how plants looked a week ago, I imagine two bright yellow patches of forsythia in full-bloom, daffodils popping along the front of the house and the right border of our front yard, and hyacinths peeking out from among tulip leaves that haven’t quite gotten their own buds above ground.

Maybe, just maybe, my fruit trees have started to blossom. That needs to have happened soon (if it hasn’t) for this to be a “normal” spring.

bee in spring

Apparently, there weren’t a lot of flowers in bloom two weeks ago. The one bee that got an early start from its hive must have searched for hours to find the small patch of flowers I was photographing. I enjoyed the company.


Finding Flowers

Just before I left home to spend what will have been two weeks in Ithaca, I’d spent part of a gorgeous spring day walking along a stream where I spotted delicate blossoms hugging the ground. I dallied with my camera and then noticed something far less likely on the stream bank: there stood a muskrat chewing on vegetation.

Usually when I spot a muskrat, it’s scurrying away, diving into water, or darting into a hole. This one ignored me and continued to munch… and then I spotted a second one.

Muskrat Love in the Afternoon

Drifting with the current, the second muskrat came into view from upstream, floated past the first muskrat, and swam to shore about ten feet later. It had obviously spotted the first muskrat and it waddled quickly back along the bank.

This was a classic boy-meets-girl moment where girl (muskrat #1) ran into the stream and boy followed her. They drifted together with the current, all the time muskrat #2 pursuing muskrat #1. Eventually they drifted out of sight but by then I had no doubt: I’d witnessed muskrat love. I can say with authority it’s nothing like the song.

muskrat on a stream bank

I looked toward the stream, and there she was: a gorgeous muskrat chomping on the foliage!

muskrat rendezvous

As I clicked shot-after-shot of the fearless muskrat, a second one floated past with the current, swam to shore, and ambled onto the bank. The first muskrat reacted by setting itself adrift. In this photo, the second muskrat approaches overland as the first one takes to the water.

snuggling muskrats

Seems these muskrats are courting. Actually, by the time they drifted out of sight, the courtship was over. Various websites suggest there will be baby muskrats about two weeks from now (gestation is one month).


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