Friday, July 24, 2009

Revenge of the raspberries

Our place came equipped with berry patches spread around the edges of several acres. Some are wild, others were once cultivated but since have run amok. Nevertheless, we have enjoyed an annual harvest of blueberries, raspberries, black raspberries, and blackberries, for better or worse depending on weather.

For a few years we pruned out the blackberry hedge bordering the backyard in hopes of improving yield. But it seemed that the more effort we put into it, the fewer berries we got. Finally we gave up and just let it go.

Meanwhile, way in the back of the "back forty," in a scrub area we ignored for 10 years, invisible things were happening. They made themselves known two summers ago, when my spouse's eye was caught by a red spot among a sea of green. Curious, he approached, and found a massive raspberry stand sporting perfect berries the size of his thumb!

Unprepared, we went on a picking frenzy. Not enough containers for them all, not enough time available every day for 3 weeks, and too many berries for the pair of us to eat, no room in the freezer, and no equipment for preserving. So there were lots left over for the birds, and bucketloads gifted to friends and neighbors.

The next summer, knowing the bonanza was coming, we did better: ate fresh raspberries in yogurt or sherbet every day, with plenty to give away and plenty to freeze. Still not enough containers or time in a day, but we harvested the lion's share and were happy. I marked the appropriate fruiting time on the next year's calendar.

So this year, we were ready. In May, I spent two afternoons cutting access paths through the awakening patch and covering them with thick bark slabs left over from wood-splitting. Cleared out everything Not Berry, including a gigantic rambling rose that had kept half the patch inaccessible with its brutal thorns. (Note: Raspberries don't have prickers; you can wade through them waist-high in shorts, and pick with short sleeves.)

I also stashed dozens of containers recycled from the winter's berries bought from the store, cleaned out half the freezer, and stocked up on Ziploc baggies. Made time in my schedule for daily picking.

And here they come! -- despite an abnormally cool and rainy season. I started picking two days ago . . . only to discover that the pathways have completely grown over, to the point we can't even find them. So much for preparations.

Picking continues to require awkward stepping and reaching and wriggling things out of the way, twisting ankles on invisible hazards, dropping the container when your balance falters so you lose half a pint to the undergrowth. The berries themselves are sassy flirts, showing perfectly colored ripe faces that mask unripe back halves, or some inedible blemish, which you don't discover until you've wrassled your way in and plucked them. It takes better part of an hour to fill a pint container -- with quarts and quarts left to go!

Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. This is a wonderful problem to have! It's merely another example of how Mother Nature triumphs over gardeners and makes us work for her bounty.

Carolyn Haley
Author: Open Your Heart with Gardens
First-year blog archives at

Friday, July 10, 2009

End of a tomato era

Yesterday I took down the tomato.

Not a tomato one would expect -- a sick or infested plant in the garden, like what happened with my beans thanks to slugs. Rather, this was a tomato I planted in the living room back in April 2008.

It began as a conventional nursery seedling, and aside from the trip home it never saw the outdoors. My aim was to learn whether my hugely windowed, south-facing living room could serve as a greenhouse; and whether tomatoes really are perennials, as I'd heard was true in their native tropical lands. (Not so here in Zone 3, with its 90-day growing season!)

After 27 months, I can claim Yes, tomatoes are perennials and they will grow year-round in my living room. There's a catch, though. From the start, the plant -- like the pair of red bell peppers that accompanied it in this experiment -- was weak and brittle, and the fruit small and sparse. Yet all three specimens grew enormous, and the peppers produced gigantic leaves.

All outgrew the space allotted to them months ago, but I persevered, until it became apparent that the plants are just plain tuckered out. Though still producing, their fruits started to grow deformed and often didn't survive to maturity. The older leaves looked dreadful. Now that new tomatoes and peppers are developing in the garden, I decided that the oldsters should move along to the compost pile.

Well, not quite. At the last moment, I decided to just cut them back to stubs. Way down low, the new-growth leaves looked healthy. So now we'll go around another year and see just how perennial these plants can be!

Carolyn Haley
Author: Open Your Heart with Gardens
First-year blog archives at