Susan Harris's blog about eco-friendly and urban gardening, plus the adventures of a DC-based garden writer, coach and occasional rabble-rowser.

From the monthly archives:

November 2008

The Satsuma Society

November 27, 2008 · 14 comments

by Guest Essayist Ed Cullen.  Ed’s a commentator on National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" and feature writer and columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate. Listen to more of Ed’s essays on the NPR site.   Ed sent me this essay about the citrus Satsuma and I couldn’t resist pairing it with the previous post, about growing fruit trees.  Susan

The knock on the door one afternoon signaled the opening session of the Satsuma Society, a collection of friends, acquaintances, utter strangers, walkers, runners, neighborhood children and garbage men  drawn each fall to our front yard citrus tree. 

The pilgrimage starts with children on the street who, thirsty, hungry or just people who know the importance of good diet, are attracted by the dangling, bright orange Satsumas that decorate branches hanging near the street. 

Once the children harvest the lowest mandarin oranges, the next wave, taller pilgrims, move up to the higher branches. 

A couple of years ago, I was sure the harvest was over when the remaining fruit was a good 10 feet off the ground. 

I was working in another part of the yard when I looked up to see a garbage collector waving from his perch high on his truck. 

First, he pointed to the Satsuma tree. Then, he pointed to his mouth. I waved my approval, and the truck began backing down the street. The garbage men got most of what was left of that year’s crop. 

The other day, our caller was a woman who takes care of a wheelchair bound neighbor in her 20s. They’d been talking about the Satsumas since the small, tart oranges began turning color this year. 

The young woman is blind, but her caretaker had described the Satsumas to her. When I peeled one of the pieces of fruit for her, the young woman said, “Oh, I smell them.” 

They left my curbside orchard with a bag of Satsuma and some Meyer lemons. 

This accidental tree has given me more pleasure than anything else in my garden. This tree that should have never borne fruit has been my introduction to neighbors and passersby I wouldn’t have known otherwise. 

The tree is an accidental because it began as a seed from a Satsuma that came from the supermarket. The tree grew from a seed I buried in a pot of dirt and forgot. Later, I transplanted the seedling that sprouted into the spot where a big tree grows today.

My wife and I are careful to get our harvest early for the juice that goes into Satsuma ice cream. I manage to down another couple of dozen as I work in the garden. 

The fruit ripens in the fall, in time for Thanksgiving and is around when it’s time to stuff Christmas stockings. 

At our house, fruit in the children’s stockings was a tradition begun by our parents whose own parents had put fruit in stockings for Christmases long ago. 

The annual gathering of the Satsuma Society in our front yard reminds me that people may still find pleasure, even joy, in something as simple as a piece of fruit hanging, tantalizingly, from a tree branch over a city street.

Photo credit: Edible Landscaping.


To be published in the December Takoma and Silver Spring Voice newspapers.

By now we're all convinced of the many great reasons to grow our own food, like better taste and nutrition, saving money, avoiding long-distance shipping, and knowing exactly what's in the food we eat.  But growing fruit trees in Mid-Atlantic humidity can be a challenge, especially if you're a low-maintenance gardener. 

First there's the regular pruning that fruit trees need if they're to produce fruit you can reach or in some cases, produce fruit at all.  It's a lot more complicated than no-brainer pruning like hacking back to a uniform height; it means opening up the branch structure, for example, and that takes some skill.  So how to learn?  You can ask the person who sells you the tree for guidance, and some mail order suppliers provide care guides that describe the pruning required.  If all else fails, research online because pruning is a must.
But Cindy Brown, edibles expert at Virginia's Green Springs Garden, warns growers not to rely too much on pruning, saying that reducing overall size is the worst reason to prune.  She believes it's far better to choose a plant that's the right size for where it's growing, and prune for other reasons – to improve health and productivity.   She also recommends starting the pruning process when the plant is young rather than trying to rejigger its shape later.

The good news for suburban gardeners is that so many fruit trees are dwarf in size and fit well in smaller gardens, even in pots on a patio.  Most need lots of sun, though, for health and productivity, and that means six hours a day.

Here are the most popular fruit trees for the D.C. area, starting with the easiest to grow.  They can be planted as soon as the ground is diggable in March.


The easiest fruit tree in this area is undoubtedly the fig, which will fruit with as few as four hours of sun per day, is fairly pest-free, and can be grown as a shrub, a small tree or a large one. Washington Gardener editor Kathy Jentz describes figs as easy to propagate and "fairly low-maintenance compared to other edibles."  No spraying is needed, and deer avoid them.  They do require winter protection, at least for their first few years (for example, by planting them close to a building or wrapping them in burlap).  Jentz warns that "Your biggest challenge will be fighting the birds and squirrels for their bounty." And if wasps and yellow jackets arrive to devour the ripe fruit, hang a trap for them.  One supplier recommends adding lime around the base in spring, summer and fall.

Cindy Brown is also a big fan of figs, adding that they're "sumptuous in recipes and absolutely delicious!"  But that's not all – they're full of vitamins and have a higher fiber content than any other fruit, can be eaten fresh or frozen, dried, or made into preserves.  The best varieties are ‘Brown Turkey', ‘Celeste', ‘Marsailles' and ‘Hardy Chicago'.  


These native trees do well in our area, are beautiful in bloom and yield fruit in three to eight years after planting.  At least two are needed for pollination, and these 40-foot trees are not for tiny patio gardens.  Some local gardeners avoid pawpaws because of their reputation for attracting raccoons but Michael at Edible Landscaping tells me that raccoons can be avoided by picking up the ripe fruit as soon as they land on the ground – that very morning.  And according to Scott Aker of the National Arboretum, Japanese beetles may occasionally damage the leaves, but pawpaws have no serious pest or disease problems and rarely need to be sprayed.  Fortunately, deer avoid them because of the bitter compounds found in the twigs.

Most sources say that pawpaws require full sun to fruit but should be shielded from the sun for their first two years, and Aker suggests building a small frame with stakes and covering the top with a piece of burlap or erosion-control fabric to provide the temporary shade needed.   (But then a local supplier tells his customers to just plant pawpaws in full sun and leave them be, so choose your advice.)  Aker also says it's essential to provide the young trees with consistent moisture in their first year.

And this is interesting, also from Aker: "Sometimes pawpaw trees fail to fruit even if another pawpaw is planted close by. The flowers, which appear in early spring, are flesh-colored and carry the faint odor of rotting meat. The smell may not be strong enough to attract the blowflies and carrion beetles that typically pollinate pawpaws. If your pawpaws flower but do not set fruit, you may want to try placing a piece of meat in the vicinity of the trees to draw flies at the time the flowers are open."  Who knew? 

Asian Persimmons

Kristi Janzen at Edible Chesapeake Magazine had great success with an old persimmon tree that eventually outlived its productive lifespan, so she recently planted a ‘Saijo' for its small, elongated fruit and a ‘Hachiya' for its rounder, larger fruit.  "They require almost no care, and do well in the climate around metro Washington, DC."  She also explained that Asian persimmons are more popular than the American ones because they bear larger fruit and the trees themselves are much smaller and fit into urban gardens.  Also, unlike American persimmons, they don't need male and female trees to produce fruit.  She advises "waiting until they're ripe – that is, when they are soft to the touch, almost like an overripe tomato.  Only then will they be sweet and delicious.  Persimmons can also be dried."

Cindy Brown also loves Asian persimmons, adding that they're rarely bothered by pests.  Persimmons range in size from 15 to 40 feet and will fruit in two to three years after planting. 

Peaches and Apples

Members of the rose family, peaches and apples are showy but suffer from damage by insect pests and persistent fungal disease in our humid summers, which problems are particularly frustrating to local gardeners hoping to avoid spraying with pesticides.  In fact, local experts say that the only way to grow them successfully is to spray regularly.  Commercial growers use systemic (and nonorganic) fungicides that remain after a rain but organic-only products must be reapplied regularly plus after each rain.  It may be the lack of that strict regimen of spraying that accounts for the failure of so many organic gardeners to successfully grow peaches and apples.
But whether you choose an organic or nonorganic pesticide, make sure it's formulated specifically for crops.  One organic insect-deterrent recommended by Edible Landscaping is the clay-based product Surround, which prevents insects laying eggs on the fruit.  To keep birds and squirrels from eating your crop, netting is the only solution.  And one local gardener told me that her Jonathan apple crop is routinely ruined by worms, despite her best efforts with organic pesticides.

Peaches seem to fare better because pest-resistant varieties are fairly successful, even in our area, though one grower told me that a particularly wet year can ruin a entire peach crop.  Overall, a little attitude adjustment goes a long way in growing apples and peaches – learning to accept blemishes and some insect damage. 


With cherries, too, a wet year can ruin the crop, and here in the suburbs, birds are the biggest pest growers have to contend with.  In selecting a variety, check whether it self-pollinates or requires a mate, and also its ultimate size because some grow to 40 feet.  For small gardens Kristi Janzen recommends ‘Northstar,' for sour pie-making cherries and ‘Krymst' or ‘Geisla' for the sweet ones. 

Asian Pears

The staff at Behnkes Nursery tell me that along with figs and persimmons, Asian pears are their top selling fruit trees (followed by apples, peaches and cherries.)  They do require spraying, however, and regular pruning to keep them low enough to reach without a ladder. 

Where to buy fruit trees

For their help writing this article, thanks to Kathy Jentz, Cindy Brown, Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen at Edible Chesapeake Magazine, Edible Landscaping Co, Casey Trees, Behnkes Nursery, and Scott Aker.

Thanks to Edible Landscaping for the use of these photos.


The latest newsletter has been delivered and is archived in full here, with off-topic sidebar. Below are the bits that are new to this blog.

In the News 

  • Bottles made from plants?  What will they think of next? The EarthBottle is from the ag guys at Clemson U., a "natural polymer-fiber bottle that’s recyclable, biodegradable, petroleum-free and stronger, lighter than glass."  The potential to replace plastic is huge! (Hat tip to Project Green Industry.)
  • The Economist opines on the coming greening of gardening, especially in response to global climate change.

Lawn Alternatives Going Mainstream?

Lawnless gardens are all together on one page:   theory and practice, examples across the U.S., stories of meadows, contrary opinions, and where to go for more info.  Here are just some of the new articles about this hot topic:

  • A Chicago gardener creates a cottage garden where her front lawn used to be. 

What to do with those leaves

More new stuff on

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Drama doesn’t have to stop by Thanksgiving if you know how to pack a pot as gorgeous as this one.  It stopped me in my tracks the other day, rushing to hear teacher/writer Rick Darke speak at the National Arboretum.

But because I don’t know what plants these are and discerning readers want plant names, damn it, I’ll shoot this link to someone at the Arb for a quick plant ID.

UPDATE:  National Arb horticulturist Scott Aker writes to tell me these plants are "Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’ and Kalanchoe thyrsifolia, I believe."

Notice the fudge factor there, the "I believe"?


Apparently I can’t get ENOUGH of the subject of lawn substitutes – evidenced by my attending two talks on the subject in the last week.  Which I suppose tells us people want to know about it, and that’s a good thing.

So here are the lawn alternatives shown off by Chuck Hinkle, gardener at The Scott Arboretum, at their recent confab on this hot topic.  After seeing a slide show about various lawn alternatives, we followed Chuck on a tour of some real-life examples from around the campus and viewed the following:


Carex pensylvanica (photo above) is native to the Northeast and suitable for shade, part shade, and even tolerates full sun.  Deciduous, mounding, and semi-evergreen, according to sources (meaning evergreen if the winter is mild?).  It’s usually cut back in early spring, and Chuck suggests cutting it back again in July, especially if it’s in full sun.  He also says it’ll tolerate mowing.

Carex appalachia is native to dry woods in the eastern half of North America.   It’s deciduous and stays short. Suitable for shady areas.

carex platyphylla

Carex platyphylla (photo above) is native to woodland areas with "balanced moisture" from Maine to Alabama.  It’s evergreen where winters are milder, otherwise only partly so.  Chuck gives it a haircut in late winter.  If winter is mild, evergreen.  Part sun to light shade to shade.  Also available at Plant Delights.

Carex morrowii ‘Silk Tassel" (photo above) is a Japanese sedge that’s evergreen and happy in full sun or shade.  I’ve been growing the variety ‘Ice Dance’ for years with great success.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) (photo above) is native to prairies of the Midwest and eastward, so best in full sun.   Mounding, deciduous and VERY drought-tolerant.  Amazing thing: its bloom is fragrant.  Chuck cuts it back in spring (and says it’s a real pain to do, that burning is better but illegal). It’s also deer-resistant.  Zones 3-9.  I see that they cost $22 each, so wonder if it can be grown from seed or reproduced by division. 


Juncus tenuis (photo above) is also known as poverty rush, winegrass or slender rush.  It’s native to all of N. America.  Goes dormant in winter.  Likes full sun to part shade, and Chuck mentioned they paid $1/square foot for it.  Likes full sun to part shade.

Dwarf mondo (Ophiopogon japonicus) is Japanese (duh).  This short evergreen groundcover is slow to spread, so buy enough to fill up the area immediately (I notice on eBay they’re selling for $90 for 24 of them or 500 for $190) Chuck just divides them often.  Best in shade.

longifolia, hard fescue, no-mow grass

Hard fescue (festuca longifolia) (photo above) is a "no-mow" grass that looked scrumptuous in November.   It has good pest tolerance, can tolerate some shade, and doesn’t need fertilizer at all.  Chuck mows it once in the spring.  On the negative side, it doesn’t tolerate foot traffic and it’s slow to establish from seed.  I can’t find info on where hard fescue comes from, except that it’s listed on this compendium of weeds.

Charles Hinkle, Gardener, joined the staff full-time in 1998. Previously, he was a gardener at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia. He holds a B.S. in horticulture from Temple University, and has completed Longwood Gardens series I and II in Ornamental Plants. He is also an instructor at Temple University.


Little Henry!

November 8, 2008 · 9 comments


I WANT THIS PLANT.  The Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’ is undeniably prettier than the ‘Henry’s Garnet’  I’ve been growing for so long, at least in the fall foliage department.  And the stars are clearly aligning for me to have it.

First there was Jeanette Ankoma-Sey, an actual horticulturist and garden designer who visited my garden recently, which prompted me to take shameless advantage of her by asking for plant recommendations for a part-sun border that got a lot wider after I got rid of the back-yard lawn.   We’d met when she attended the talk I gave to DC’s EcoWomen last summer.  Little did I know she has a hort degree and works for the largest design company in the U.S. (I’m pretty sure) - EDAW.

So, I tell her I want to fill the border with shrubs; what does she recommend?  Itea and fothergilla.  YES!   But which ones?

Then a week later I ran into a writer-gardener who invited me to see her ‘Little Henry’ in its fall glory and voila – I’m sold.  Now I just have to find a few.  Oh yeah, I’m massing ‘em, baby!

Here’s my page about Itea virginica, with a photo of ‘Henry’s Garnet’ flowering.

Thanks to Alison Gillespie for showing me her ‘Little Henry’.