Last time I mentioned how important pruning is at this time of year. A reader asked if it wasn’t wise to wait until trees and shrubs are dormant.
Yes and no.
Pruning in winter lowers the risk of infection. I would never touch an oak outside the bounds of the tree’s dormancy period because, who wants to run even a slight risk of killing a 150-year-old specimen with oak wilt?
Radical pruning to improve a tree or shrub’s structure is also best undertaken when foliage doesn’t obscure the lines of the tree.
I prune smaller specimens when I decide they need it. The reasons are mostly aesthetic. The rewards have been more than just that.
I mentioned that I let my pagoda dogwoods self-seed to the point where I could open a nursery. Each of my trees is pruned in accordance with my notion of how it will enhance its immediate surroundings as well as the garden overall.
The horizontal shape of the tree is one of its most distinctive features and fun to play with, as long as I remember how pruning affects the seed production required to grow my nursery.
If I were to tire of the species, I would take care to remove the berries that the birds devour and then drop randomly about the garden, the neighborhood and beyond.
This is how buckthorn gained its nasty reputation. Dogwood isn’t nearly as aggressive. The Cornus genus is native here, though the species I grow hails from Japan.
Buckthorn, native in Europe, not only produces lots of berries, it also runs over less aggressive neighbors on account of its long growing season. It is still green and growing in November and quite tolerant of sun or shade.
Pruning stimulates fruit production, which is why my smallest (yet oldest) pagoda dogwood is so heavily laden with berries that the whole tree looks like the skin of a navy blue blowing ball from a distance.
A neighbor walking by asked me the other day if I’d noticed the mass consumption of this year’s crop.
It happened in “one fell swoop,” apparently. (Now I know where that phrase came from.) He said the cloud of birds that descended on the tree en masse was brown in color and loud in voice.
I discovered an invaluable website in the process of trying to pin down the variety and made a mental note to return often over the winter.
The Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Macaulay Library is a legend among those who love birds. All About Birds, the Internet Bird Collection (IBC), for those of us who don’t live in Upstate New York or anywhere near it, is an absolute gold mine.
It took about five seconds for my meager descriptors — “brown in color,” “loves pagoda dogwood berries” — to identify the birds as brown thrashers.
Having never heard of brown thrashers, I assumed at first that the other species mentioned as loving these berries, the American robin, must be the one.
That male robins have red breasts did give me slight pause, but then I thought, is it always the dad who brings home the bacon? Or could the moms have wanted a special girls-night-out after having whisked their babies out of the nest?
Then I turned on the video of the brown thrasher. I hadn’t counted on an audio track, so when the familiar tweeting of the thrasher began, I thought it was coming from outside my window. That’s how familiar it was.
I sat, entranced, until the show was over, applauded loudly even though only the outdoor thrashers, who by now had joined in, could hear me.
That I live in a sea of brown thrashers I would never have known had it not been for two things: my garden and the internet.
Kudos, too, of course to the Cornell ornithologists who take the time to glorify not just rare birds but also the most commonplace.
As a chicken farmer, I’ve learned not to play favorites just on the basis of beauty or rarity.
Which brings me to my next topic, corn. I hope you food gardeners don’t feel neglected during this COVID-19 summer, when a garden columnist should be writing about other edible plants besides tomatoes.
Corn, for instance.
I have never grown corn, so forgive me if I offer some insights that are not based on my own experience, but that of a man who not only served three terms as FDR’s vice president (before running himself in 1948) and also as agriculture secretary during the worst of the Depression, but also launched the green revolution.
“American Dreamer” is the title of a biography of Henry A. Wallace that every gardener and farmer in America should read. Imagine a 15-year-old son-of-an-Iowa-farmer taking on the biggest names in agriculture during a high-level agronomy class and proving his professor wrong about just about everything he was teaching.
Yup. Henry Wallace did that. What corn and dogwoods have in common is that they are beautiful plants, so beautiful that corn growers believed that the most beautiful of the various breeds must also be the most fruitful.
Wallace sensed a disconnect here, a big dose of wishful thinking well fertilized by the profit motive, as this particular agronomist benefited personally by selling tickets to his summer-long traveling corn shows, whose purpose was to sell one (and only one) type of corn. Reid Dent had fine, juicy and perfectly rectangular kernels, fat cobs, tall stalks … it was the Greta Garbo of corn plants.
Rudely rebuffed the first time he produced evidence that maybe looks aren’t everything, Wallace dug in his heels, expanded his backyard experimental plot to a full-blown station (several acres) and planted all sorts of corn varieties, keeping scrupulously detailed notes on the comparative yields and then graphing them.
It wasn’t long before Wallace’s findings were incontrovertible. The professor admitted defeat.
Wallace’s next revelation was that crossing breeds resulted in even higher-yielding and more resilient plants. By the 1920s, Wallace’s new so-called hybrids were trouncing the competition and by the 1930s, he had a booming business.
The Depression forced him to focus not on boosting but curbing yields, as he stuck to the unpopular view that the only way forward for farmers was to take control of agriculture by deliberately reducing the supply of their product.
Once again, his renegade views proved prescient, though farm foreclosures didn’t stop altogether. Economies of scale was the new ideology and Wallace believed in it. He was also a proponent of producing more during good times and exporting commodities overseas.
When the Depression ended and war came, his vision made a huge difference in the war’s aftermath. America did feed the world, or a big part of it, as millions were starving.
The pendulum seems to be shifting these days. Feeding the world as an end in itself may have gone the way of Reid Dent corn, as over-industrialization has had some serious unintended consequences, including climate change. Today’s urban farmers, those of us planting 21st-century victory gardens and raising chickens, testify to the pressures to make our food system local.
It took a pandemic to drive the point home that when you live in a global village, you have to remember that it takes millions of actual villages, each with its own ecosystem, to feed the world in a safe and sustainable way.
Years later, Wallace wrote that it was fortunate that some farmers never “took any stock” in Reid corn (aka Holden, after the famous professor).
“(Professor) Holden rendered an enormous service, but we can also give thanks for the skeptics and the ‘forgotten corns.’ There is room for both ‘forgotten corn’ and ‘forgotten men.’ Neither corn nor men were meant to be completely uniform.”
Once a soothsayer, always a soothsayer. Did I mention that Wallace was also a mystic?
His preferred label was “pantheist,” one who believes in the divinity of all living things.