Grit Blogs > Goat Haute Adventures

Gardening Ups and Downs

By Tracy Houpt

Tags: Gardening, Gardening Struggles, Apple Trees, Biennial Apple Trees, Tracy Houpt,

Tracy HouptI’m not having a great gardening season. We had too much rain in June, and our clay soil was waterlogged for most of the month. Also during June I had two bouts with an illness that was not serious, but completely sapped my energy and made it a challenge to get through the regular daily chores. I had no extra “oomph” for the hard work of weeding. With every day of rain that caused the weeds to thrive, I got more discouraged and just couldn’t drum up the motivation to even begin!

Then the Cavalry showed up this past week, in the form of my son Kyle and his girlfriend Wendy. They brought a much-needed dose of youthful energy and enthusiasm with them. They spent a couple of hours working in the rows of tomatoes and peppers, freeing them from the surrounding tangle of lamb’s quarters and other weeds.

Amazingly, there are fruits forming on the plants, so all is not lost.

I hope to get out there this week and tackle the rows of bush beans and cooking beans, as well as the carrot and beet areas. If I end up with some tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, and cucumbers, I will need to be satisfied.

Years like this make me thankful that I’m not completely dependent upon what I can grow in my own backyard. Striving to be more food self-sufficient is a worthy goal, but I doubt that I’ll ever be a completely closed system out here!

We are fortunate to have a growing farmers’ market in our town, and there are a few Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups in this area, as well. The organic produce sections of our local grocery stores are growing, and the prices are competitive. I try to purchase organic foods as much as possible, for our health as well as to show the store owners that organics will sell.

Last year the garden was bountiful. Rain came at the right intervals and in appropriate amounts; the heat and humidity were not as extreme as we often experience in Indiana; and I was industrious enough to put row cover on the cabbage to keep out the cabbage moths.

I froze a fair amount of green beans, corn, carrots, peppers, cabbage, and pesto, and I canned several quarts of tomato juice and sauce. I had fresh beets for roasting. I made my mom’s lime pickle recipe with our cucumbers and also made Lowell’s favorite fermented crock dill pickles. I had enough leftover produce to share with family and friends.

In the fall I had some beautiful “sweet fall” squash that stored well and yielded many cups of beautiful deep orange pulp for casseroles and muffins. (I will include a good muffin recipe in my next post.) I grew Aunt Mollie’s ground cherries, and had enough to eat fresh and to use for ground cherry chai jam. Ground cherries are related to tomatoes and Chinese lanterns; the fruit is encased in a lantern-shaped husk that turns yellow as the fruit ripens. They usually fall to the ground when fully ripe. I think they taste like pineapple and tomato all at once! They re-seed easily, so this year I have several volunteer plants that will hopefully produce well.

ground cherries | Fotolia/homydesign 

Photo: ground cherries | Fotolia/homydesign

This year our old apple tree is on its way to producing a bumper crop. It’s been here for more than 40 years. The previous owner doesn’t know what variety it is, and I spent a lot of time a couple of years ago poring over photographs and descriptions of apples to see if I could identify it. I couldn’t. I just know that its fruit ripens in late September/early October, and the apples are deliciously tart-sweet when eaten fresh and also make wonderful applesauce and pie/crisp fillings. If left on the tree too long they get mealy, so I know to pick them before then. They also don’t store well as whole apples, so I won’t try that again.

This particular tree seems to bear every other year. I searched online for “biennial apple tree” information and read that some apple trees will become biennial bearers if they experience a stressful year that inhibits production, followed by a year of heavy fruiting. This can start a cycle of heavy crop/no crop that can continue unless some intervention occurs.

In 2012, when we moved here, we had a long period of summer drought and heat, and the tree didn’t produce fruit that year. In 2013, we had a bumper crop; no apples in 2014; and now the tree is loaded again.

green apples | Fotolia/Anna Moskvina 

Photo: Fotolia/Anna Moskvina

We purchased three grafted apple trees this spring that I hope will live long and prosper, and perhaps bear every year. Until they get established, I’m happy to work with our old tree in its biennial phases. We’ve done some pruning, and our forester friend has helped us with that, but it is a very old tree and who knows how many more years it has. If we are ambitious enough, we will have the forester graft some of the tree’s scion wood onto a rootstock so we can keep this mystery variety going!

One more interesting note about apples ... we don’t spray our tree, so the fruit has “flyspeck” and “sooty blotch” on it (little tiny black specks and larger areas of brown). In reading online about these surface fungi, I found that they are not harmful, but years ago commercial apple growers started spraying to get the blemish-free fruit we are accustomed to seeing in stores. If you look at old horticulture books with drawings of apples, many of them are shown with the flyspeck and sooty blotch quite visible.

I’m certainly not an apple expert, so if anyone has a deeper understanding of the apple issues I’ve mentioned, I’m eager to learn!