Figs

August 28 2013 garden 021Figs are on my mind.

This is the time of year when our fig trees ripen their fruit.

August 28 2013 garden 020

Last summer our fig trees were loaded.  A friend and I picked repeatedly, and had a steady supply of fruit for over a month.

(There is a recipe for Fig Pickles at the end of the post.)

This year I’ve picked here and there since July, but haven’t gotten more than a handful at a time.

August 28 2013 garden 031Today I got lucky.

The variety growing here when we moved in stays green right up until the moment of ripeness, when the fruit swells and turns a yellowish green.

July 24 2013 garden photos 012The inside is pink to red, depending on ripeness.  This isn’t a super sweet fig, but is delicious broiled with a little shaving of salty cheese on top. I favor a Tuscano cheese, but anything in the Parmesan family of cheeses is delicious.

This fig came home in a 1 gallon pot last summer.

This fig came home in a 1 gallon pot last summer.  Its figs are brown.  It started the season with small green figs, but lost them along the way.

I’ve read that figs which stay green when ripe have an added protection from hungry animals who might take them as they ripen.   Birds only peck at the figs I’ve left on the bush way too long so they split open.  BUT, the deer have been molesting the fig trees this year, grazing leaves and ripping stems and branches.

July 5 garden at sunset 025

This fig tree grew so much in spring that its branches toppled over, changing the shape of the entire plant. New branches have sprouted along the now horizontal fallen branches. It grew quickly with the abundant rain, and was knocked over by the windstorms in June.

I gave pieces of one of these broken branches to some gardening friends, who rooted them successfully, and now have small trees.

The tall, heavy branches, fallen over in early summer, are sprouting new vertical growth.  This beautiful tree just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

The tall, heavy branches, fallen over in early summer, are sprouting new vertical growth. This beautiful tree just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Visiting a fig loving friend yesterday evening, I commented on her ripe figs.  We looked more closely.  Her small bush, covered in ripening figs only days ago, had only two little figs still attached.  We found the gaps where squirrels had gotten in through her netting.

A well protected fig in my friends garden, still was robbed by a squirrel who found an opening in the netting.

A well protected fig in my friends garden, still was robbed by a squirrel who found an opening in the netting.

We both feel  that our gardening efforts this year are chiefly for the benefit of hungry squirrels and deer.  What a disappointment after an entire season of protecting and nurturing her new fig, planted only last fall, to find the fruit stolen.  I’ve begun to wonder whether netting simply draws the squirrels attention, and signals something really good must be kept inside the enclosure…

August 28 2013 garden 034

We have just received two new “SIlver Lyre” fig trees from Plant Delights.  This is a newly offered variety of Afghan Fig.  I like the beautiful, lacy silver-toned leaves.  These are advertised to grow quickly to a 20′ shrub, and I plan to plant them in the newly sunny area of our forest where the oak trees fell this spring.

An Afghan Fig, newly arrived in the mail, ready to pot up.

An Afghan Fig, newly arrived in the mail, ready to pot up.

They will quickly provide a bit of privacy from the street, but will never grow tall enough to create a hazard.  In fact, they are supposed to be very sturdy in wind.  I hope to one day harvest a few figs from them… If I can manage to keep the squirrels away.

Rick Austin, in his book, Secret Garden of Survival, describes a method of planting a “guild” of plants around a new fruit tree.  Some of the plants bring up nutrients from the soil, some are good companion plants for the tree, and some plants protect the newly planted tree from critters.  Not brave enough to plant an apple or persimmon, which I KNOW our squirrels would strip, I plan to try his method when planting these figs later in the fall.

Garlic Chives

Garlic Chives

I’ll surround the new figs with daffodil bulbs to create a wall of poisonous bulbs and roots against the voles, garlic or garlic chives to slow down the deer, and perhaps some Comfrey to enrich the soil and create that extra wall of distraction for the deer.  They never touch my Comfrey or garlic chives, both of which attract bees and butterflies.

Comfrey, a perennial herb with tremendous healing properties, is an excellent herb for improving the soil.  Its long tap root brings up nutrients from deep in the Earth.  Its leaves are an excellent addition to compost to build fertility.

Comfrey, a perennial herb with tremendous healing properties, is an excellent herb for improving the soil. Its long tap root brings up nutrients from deep in the Earth. Its leaves are an excellent addition to compost to build fertility.

These little trees will go into pots tomorrow to let them grow a bit beefier before I plant them out in the garden, after the first frost, probably in December.  The growers at Plant Delights had tremendous growth in their first year with “Silver Lyre”, and I will hope for the same results so these new trees fill out quickly.  They will grow quite wide, as figs do, so the guilds will extend several feet out from their trunks.  This will be an interesting process to watch unfold in the forest garden.August 21, 2013 close up garden 010

All photos by Woodland Gnome

Here is my favorite “Pickled Fig” recipe developed last autumn.  I made several batches, tweaking the recipe each time.  I’m hoping there is a large enough harvest to make them again in a few weeks!

Pickled Figs

6 c. sugar

1 cup boiling water

¾ c. white Sangria

½ c. red wine vinegar

1 TB ground cinnamon

1 TB ground allspice

1 Tsp. ground cloves

4 medium lemons, washed

6-8 chili peppers, green or red

20-30 ripe figs

(Boil a kettle of water for preparing the figs.  Have on hand about 3/4 c. of baking soda to sprinkle on the figs before they are cooked.)

1.  Measure the sugar into a dutch oven,  add 1 c. of water, and turn on medium heat.

2.  Wash and trim the figs. Place in a large ceramic bowl.  Sprinkle them with baking soda, and cover with boiling water.  Allow to soak for 10-12 minutes.

3.  Wash and thinly slice the lemons. Halve or quarter the slices, catching the juice.  Julienne the end pieces, which are mostly peel.   Add fruit and juice to the sugar mixture, along with the spices, Sangria, vinegar, and washed peppers.

4.  Rinse the figs in cool water, peel off any discolored skin, and slice the figs in halves or quarters as they are added to the sugar, lemon, and spice mix.

5.  Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes; allowing the syrup to thicken and the lemons to become translucent.

6.  Allow the mixture to sit, covered, for 12 to 24 hours.

7.  Reheat to boiling and can in glass jars.

More information on figs:

http://www.treesofjoy.com/fig-varieties-collection

http://www.spadespatula.com/2012/04/10/fig-varieties-common-fig-sounds-boring-but-isnt/

http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/08/27/6-types-figs-try-right-now

Permaculture on Forest Garden

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Monarda and conefowers

Monarda and Purple Coneflowers are at their peak in late June. Butterfly bushes in the background have just begun to bloom.

Management by Walking Around is a way of life in many businesses and professions.  During all of those years teaching, I walked around and around my classroom many times each day, armed with a pen and notepad, listening, and observing my students.  I answered a question here, wrote a quick note for someone else, checked homework, and kept an eye on notebooks and computer screens.  Walking around allowed me to interact quietly and personally with each child, to offer quick praise as well as quick re-direction as problems arose.

The same approach keeps me in touch with my garden.  Things change so quickly, especially when it’s hot.  The garden is never the same one day to the next, and every perambulation brings surprises.  This week the Rose of Sharon shrubs began blooming for the summer.  Each day another bush or two burst into bloom with its special color and form of blossom.

Rose of Sharon feeding a bumble bee

Rose of Sharon feeding a bumble bee

I usually wore a jacket, when teaching, with ample pockets for pens, paperclips, hall passes, Jolly Ranchers, and a notepad.  Now I have a gardening vest, actually a Bean fishing vest, covered in pockets of all shapes and sizes.  I always carry clippers, and twist ties or twine.  My pockets also hold a handful of Moonflower seeds harvested in late winter, a few stones for pushing into vole holes, and of course my cell phone. I carry a long skinny trowel with a cutting edge which can accomplish a million small chores, from a quick transplant or division to filling in a hole.

Monarda and conefowers

Both red and purple Monarda grow happily together on a sunny bank.

Even a quick trip out to water a few pots shows me that more attention is needed here and there.  A heavy stem of coneflowers needs to be staked.  Roses need to be cut back where yesterday’s bloom has lost its petals.  A vole tunnel needs to be stomped down flat, and the hole filled with gravel.  Ten minutes quickly stretch into an hour or more, and time passes unheeded as I’m absorbed in the unfolding life around me.

I saw two golden and red skinks this late this afternoon as I watered the basil.  They expected me to keep going around the house, and I surprised them by turning around before they could skitter away.  How they have grown since they first appeared weeks ago.  They happily live close to the house where they can sun themselves and always find a drink of water. I mostly hear them running behind pots or under vines.  Today I was honored that they didn’t run from me.

Walking around, daily, shows me problems when they are small, and can be remedied with just a little effort.  I can cut back the spent blooms of annuals, pull a few blades of grass taking hold in a bed, tie up new growth on a Clematis vine, prune a lantana branch away from a rose, pinch back the growth of Chrysanthemums and Coleus to make them grow bushy.  My tour yesterday showed me that deer had hosted a party in my garden the night before and made a buffet from a hydrangea and even a Persian Shield, which I thought they were supposed to ignore.  Time to spray again with Plant Skydd, and move those pots to a safer location.

Persian Shield, the day before the deer munched it.

Persian Shield, the day before the deer munched it.

Miss a few days of the daily walk, and things can definitely get out of control.  A fast growing Zinnia can fall across a path and begin growing horizontally.  A new family of voles can move in and tunnel up a whole patch of ground where they think they can’t be seen.  A fungus can infest the leaves of a rose, and a pot left sitting in rain water can steam in the summer sun and cook the plant inside.  A garden needs to feel the gardener’s touch every day.

There is research I recently read which shows that plants actually respond to our attention.  They know when they are being admired, and react with fear (according to the scientist who hooked up sensors to a plant’s leaves to measure this) when they are about to be cut back.  Just like us, they enjoy attention and respond to admiration by growing faster and stronger.  A walk of appreciation, where you notice the blooms and new growth on the plants in your garden; where you see each plant as an individual and tend to its needs; makes a difference in their growth and health.

Coleus need regular pinching to remove their bloom stalks.  Once they bloom, leaf production suffers.

Coleus need regular pinching to remove their bloom stalks. Once they bloom, leaf production suffers.

So the need to water in the cool of the morning is usually enough to tear me away from my coffee and morning news programs to suit up and head out into the garden.  Once outside, watering leads to weeding. Flowers and vegetables are harvested while it’s cool. Supports are adjusted, flowers are sniffed, butterflies watched, photos snapped.  On very special days, our hummingbirds will fly over to play in the spray of my hose. One small chore leads to another, and in no time at all I realize the sun has gotten very hot, and it’s on towards noon.  Management by walking around brings me out each day to appreciate, assist, and learn something new about life in our forest garden.

Rose of Sharon

When Your Garden Looks Like Swiss Cheese- Living with Moles and Voles

Moles have large paddle like feet to tunnel through soil. They prefer to eat invertebrates like insects and insect larvae. Image by Michael David Hill, Wikimedia

Moles and voles go wherever they want to go, and eat whatever they want to eat.   They leave raised tunnels in lawns and garden beds.  Both are small mammals, about 4″-6″ long as adults, and both live underground.  Moles prefer to eat insects, earthworms, and larvae that live in the top few inches of soil.  Voles, which look like mice, are herbivores; preferring to eat roots, grass, seeds, and whatever plant material they can drag down into their tunnels.

These destructive critters love freshly dug soil and newly planted plants; a real problem for many gardeners.  When you plant out a bed of transplants voles think you’ve prepared them a luscious buffet.  We’ve had newly purchased plants simply disappear overnight, eaten before they could even root into the surrounding soil.

As many moles or voles as you trap or kill, there seems to be a constant supply of new ones ready to take over the yard, with new ones born regularly between May and October.  There damage tends to be worse after a good rain when the ground is soft.

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A vole hole under a fern in a shaded area is only one of at least four networked holes all connected with tunnels.

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We’ve noticed that mole and vole activity seems to be worse in shaded areas than sunny, and that they go crazy under any area mulched with bark or leaves.  We’ve had whole areas dug up in a single night, and have even found them tunneling under some lawn during the day.  These guys will just destroy new plants and tear up the ground if left unchecked.  Worse, in our yard, we’ve found snakes also use the vole holes and tunnels for their own purposes.

Some people will bait the tunnels with poison, but I choose not to use poisons, especially since we have neighboring outside cats.  Some people leave traps to catch moles and voles.  But then you have to do something with the creatures once trapped.

Eliminating all moles and voles isn’t going to happen in a forested neighborhood with lots of green space, but, there are some things you can do to slow them down.

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Vole hole, through an earlier patch of gravel, and surrounding tunnels in the lawn.

Vole hole, through an earlier patch of gravel, and surrounding tunnels in the lawn.

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First, we destroy the tunnels and holes whenever and wherever we find them.  We stomp the tunnels flat, and fill the entrance holes with pea gravel.  If you find one hole, there will probably be another nearby.  Before I started filling the holes with pea gravel, we put rocks, bottle caps, moth balls, and other treasures into the tunnels to obstruct them.  Moth balls are especially effective at chasing these critters out of a particular tunnel.

Over the years, we have also stumbled across a non-poisonous way to eliminate some of the ‘activity.’  A friend tipped us off to using chewing gum as a bait.  We use sticks of Double Mint or Juicy Fruit gum, still in its wrapper, and torn into three or four portions per stick.  When we find a hole or tunnel, we simply push one of these little baits into the earth before we stomp the tunnel or fill the hole.  This method has proven helpful in reducing the population.

A product called “Milky Spore,” which is a powdered bacterium, can be sprinkled on lawns.  One application will allow this bacteria to grow in your soil, killing off the larvae of the Japanese beetle.  These larvae are a major food source for moles, and many find that using milky spore reduces the tunneling in their lawn.

Milky spore is not poisonous, won’t harm pets or other wildlife, lasts in the soil for years, and is widely available in hardware stores and garden centers.  As a bonus, it will reduce the Japanese beetle population, which may feed on your roses and other perennials in early summer.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of a  planting hole.

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When planting anything new, I mix pea gravel into the “back-fill” under and around the plant.  The gravel can improve drainage in the soil, and will slow voles down as they try to attract the roots of a plant.  I also mulch around newly planted beds with pea gravel to slow down the squirrels who may want to dig them up.

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Use pea gravel in the "back-fill" soil under and around new plantings, and then mulch around the new plant with pea grave. This discourages moles and voles from eating the roots of your new plant, and discourages squirrels from digging around it. Herbs benefit from the reflected heat and sunlight, and the soil is held in place on a slope.

Use pea gravel in the “back-fill” soil under and around new plantings, and then mulch around the new plant with pea grave. This discourages moles and voles from eating the roots of your new plant, and discourages squirrels from digging around it.  Herbs benefit from the reflected heat and sunlight, and the soil is held in place on a slope.

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You might also create a ‘living fence’ of poisonous roots around an area that you need to protect from hungry voles.  You will find that there are many plants with poisonous or irritating compounds in their roots, stems and leaves.  My favorite plants to use this way are Narcissus and Hellebores.  Plant these plants around shrubs whose roots you want to protect, in mixed borders, and as a barrier around areas of lawn.

Narcissus, planted a bulbs in the fall, are an fairly inexpensive investment and multiply over the years.  They grow all winter long and bloom in the spring.  Although their leaves die back in early summer, their roots and bulbs continue to work as a barrier year round.

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Narcissus are beautiful but poisonous. Their bulbs and roots can form a ‘living fence’ to protect other plants form hungry voles.

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Hellebores, an evergreen herbaceous perennial, are available in garden centers from late autumn through the spring.  They bloom from late December through early May, and serve as a ground cover through the summer months.  They have large, fibrous root systems.

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Hellebores bloom through the winter months, but their large root system can protect an area from voles year round.

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Once established, Hellebores produce lots of seedlings, which you can transplant to new areas you want to protect.  Most gardeners cut back the old Helleborus leaves in the spring to make way for new growth.  Consider using old, ragged Hellebores leaves you’ve trimmed back as a mulch around other plants you want to protect.  As the leaves decay, their poisonous compounds enter the soil.

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A new raised bed, bordered by recycled bricks, is filled with topsoil and compost, ready for planting.

A new raised bed, bordered by recycled bricks, is filled with topsoil and compost, ready for planting.

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The best plan to protect your garden from mole and vole damage is to grow in raised beds.  When you build the bed, put a layer of chicken wire or landscaping fabric on the ground; follow with a shallow layer of gravel, then newspaper, cardboard, or brown paper shopping bags.  This suppresses the grown of any grass or weeds up into your new bed.  It will break down quickly, and help retain moisture under the roots as it enriches the soil.   Build the walls of your bed from wood, rock or masonry as tall as you need them, and fill the bed with topsoil and compost.

Laying landscape fabric or chicken wire under a new raised bed will keep the voles from eating the roots of your plants.  You might also use the Hugelkulture method of building a new bed on top of sticks, branches, leaves, or chipped wood.  This woody barrier will also help stop tunneling moles or voles.

You may need to slice through the bed’s lining to plant shrubs or other deeply rooted perennials, but your plants will be protected.  Many plants will grow more vigorously in a raised bed, especially if your soil is compacted or depleted.  It is very easy to plant into the fresh soil.

This is also an easy bed to maintain, and will never need tilling.  Simply add a few inches of compost each spring, and move plants in and out as the season dictates.

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March raised bed

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Plants grown in raised beds and containers grow much better than plants put directly into the soil around our home.  We get larger, lusher plants, with more flowers and fruits; probably because their roots can find plenty of moisture, air and nutrition and aren’t attacked by hungry voles!

The steep grade of our yard makes traditional double digging or tilling not only impractical, but dangerous.  Building up above the present soil makes more sense, gives a better result, and allows us to put down layers of material to stop the moles and voles from digging up to get the roots of our plants.

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Our new butterfly garden in May.

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If you have been frustrated in your efforts to garden or even maintain a lawn by hungry moles and voles, take heart.  There are things you can do to reduce or eliminate the damage they cause, without resorting to poisons.  Once you understand them, you can find ways to reduce their access to the food they seek, and protect both your landscaping investment and your peace of mind.

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Daffodil bulbs planted at a depth of 8″, and about 6″ apart all around the root ball to protect it from voles.

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Woodland Gnome 2013
Updated 2018

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