Six jars of jam

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Last week, I produced 4 jars–count them 4 whole jars–of pectin-free jam from my elderberries and aronia berries plus some prune plums bought at the market (4 pounds of fruit made 4 small jars of jam). It’s quite delicious, tart and sort of wild tasting. Aronia is very astringent and doesn’t taste quite like other fruits we’re used to eating.

Then, over the past week, as the plums on my American plum trees ripened, I picked a bowlful every other day until I had about four pounds of fruit. I stewed half of it with honey and a cinnamon stick and a little bit of water and put it in the fridge to eat with yogurt and granola. The other half I macerated with sugar last night, and tonight I made 2 more little jars of jam (for a total of six). Right now, it’s cooling down after being sterilized in a boiling water bath.

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Did you ever see anything such a gorgeous color as those plums? They’re orange-red on the outside with a lovely whitish bloom, and the flesh is apricot color.

OK, enough about my fruit/jam obsession. Please forgive me–I grew up in a small apartment in Queens, and I never made jam before last year.

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Wait ’til next year

The weather is still remarkably cool, and it’s starting to look like fall. The plants are getting ready–the hazelnuts have formed small catkins (the male flowers that will bloom in very early spring), and perennials that have basal leaves throughout the winter have formed them. We can’t go outside without disturbing the goldfinches among the sunflowers and the catbirds among the pokeberries and raspberries (they’ve finished off the grey dogwood and elderberries). Berries of spicebush and flowering dogwood will show color soon.

It’s time to think about next year. Whatever the season, gardeners always focus on how the garden can be better, but starting now and extending through the winter, it’s all about next year. How can I improve my tomato harvest?  grow cucumbers despite wilt? cut back those rampant Rudbeckias so the shorter plants can thrive? get rid of the bare spot on the lawn without using chemicals? make my garden m ore sustainable? It’s time to list this year’s successes and failures while they’re still fresh in my mind, do some research, make some plans, and then, wait ’til next year.

What’s on your list for next year?

Early harvest

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I’m just a little bit obsessed with fruit. I selected many of the shrubs I grow because they produce fruit, not necessarily for us but for the birds and other critters. Today we noticed that the birds were going crazy among the ripe Aronia berries. A friend picked about half my berries for jam about a week ago, and I was going to get around to picking some for my own jam–sometime soon. Except that if I hadn’t gathered them today, there would have been none left. The catbirds and robins had devoured at least half of what was left, so I shooed them away and picked almost two pounds of berries. And those birds know how to pick ripe fruit–the berries were soft and juicy, not hard like Aronia berries usually are.

The photo shows the Aronia berries (right) before I picked them over and washed them, plus some elderberries (bottom) that I picked and cleaned a few days ago and stored in the fridge, and some prune plums I bought in the market. The plums on my American plum trees are turning red, but they’re not ripe yet. All this fruit is macerating with sugar in the refrigerator, and I’ll make jam tomorrow using a formula for pectin-free jam I found online.

All summer I’d been planning a purple-fruit jam made entirely of my own wild fruits–Aronia berries, elderberries, and plums–but the plums did not oblige. However, the hazelnuts (Corylus americanus) seem to have ripened today along with the Aronia berries. A few days ago I checked them, hoping to get just a few before the squirrels devoured them all, as they do every year; they were still tight and green inside their husks. Today the ground under the shrubs was littered with husks and shells.

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I searched long and hard for some nuts left on one of the trees. I managed to find a single remaining nut and took a rather poor photo of it, so at least you can see what it looks like if you’ve never seen a hazelnut on a tree.

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It still looks green, doesn’t it? It sure fooled me, but not the squirrels.

Late summer in black and white (and gold)

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In the twenty years since I started gardening seriously, I don’t ever remember such a summer for wild fruits–such abundance. The birds can’t manage to eat them all. The branches of the black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa–above) are bent down from the weight of the fruits. Elderberries and grey dogwood berries (next two pictures) actually remain ripe on the bushes instead of being snatched by catbirds and robins and jays at every opportunity. There’s a continual screech of catbirds as they dive-bomb into the elderberry and raspberry bushes.

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Fruits of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

And the plums! In the past, each tree has ripened maybe a dozen plums, which were devoured unseen during the night. But this year there are untold numbers of fruits, slowly, teasingly, turning from green to yellow to gold and soon to red and then purple. We may actually get some this year. I’m told they’re very good. (If there are any other devotees of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books out there, you surely remember a scene in which Laura and her Ma pick and preserve wild plums. It’s probably this species she’s describing.)

Plums (Prunus americana) finally ripening

Each year, goldfinches arrive in my garden in late summer. These tiny beams of light rear their nestlings late in the season and depend on the seeds of wild flowers to feed them (and, I suspect, on the multitude of pollinating insects that still swarm over the perennial beds), so we always see them just as the perennial sunflowers begin to open and the Rudbeckias begin to ripen seeds. Right now I can’t walk out the back door without disturbing at least a dozen of them feeding in the perennial garden. They squawk loud in irritation and take off, like flashes of sunlight, for the shelter of the hemlocks across the yard. Look closely among the Rudbeckias:

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Summertime (I)

The garden in mid-July.

We’re approaching the height of summer, and the garden is blooming almost aggressively. Tomatoes are ripening–finally–and the weather is hot. (My apologies to the great Ira Gershwin.) The picture above features Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan, which I really must cut back severely next spring; Vernonia fasciculata, ironweed (purple); and some perennial sunflowers not yet in bloom (Helanthus mollis, downy sunflower). Today I saw goldfinches for the first time this season. These late breeders arrive when the prairie plants are ready to set seed, and they feed the seeds to their babies. They’ll be with us for the rest of the summer, hanging upside down on seedheads and providing great entertainment.

American plums--beginning to ripen.

The fruits on my native plum trees (Prunus americana) are finally ripening–notice the first hints of yellow. They first turn yellow, then red, and finally purple. As with most wild fruits, they ripen one-by-one, and we’ll almost never see a ripe one. The plum crop is heavy this year, but the birds get up earlier than I do.

Grey dogwood berries almost ripe.

Another plant that ripens its fruit one by one is grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa). This shrub is beautiful in all seasons, but I particularly love those red stems that signal to the birds that the fruits are almost ripe. The berries turn white when they’re ready to eat; as with the plums, we almost never see a ripe one.

Unripe pods of swamp milkweed.

Almost hidden among the Rudbeckias are the unripe seedpods of swamp milkweed (Asclepias  incarnata). When the seeds are mature, in another month or so, the pods will dry up and split open, and the seeds will drift away, each attached to a tiny parachute of milkweed down.

Elderberries ready to ripen.

This year also promises to be a bountiful one for elderberries (Sambucus canadensis). Notice that the stems are turning purple–the fruit will ripen soon. This is another favorite of the birds, and there will be great exultation among the catbirds when the fruit are ripe. I can usually manage to pick some of these, however,–perhaps to put in the Aronia jam I hope to make later in the season.

I have not seen any monarchs this year, and this is the time they usually migrate through. I am seeing a great abundance of fireflies, however, and I think of the presence of these delightful insects as a sign of a relatively healthy environment. Do you see lots of fireflies on your property? If you do, good for you. If you don’t, you might want to think about trying to manage your yard in a more sustainable way.

Missing plants: American plum tree

Did you know that there is a native American plum tree? The species is Prunus americana, and it’s native to all of the United States and Canada from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains. It’s a species that should be everywhere in northern New Jersey but isn’t anymore–except in my back and front yards. Here’s a closeup picture of the plums, taken today. They are about an inch long and will be ripe in another few weeks:

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The American plum is a small tree or large shrub that sends out suckers and can form large colonies. However, the suckers can be easily controlled by mowing, so a good way to use the tree would be as a specimen in the middle of a lawn. It likes full sun, and although reference books say it likes wet places, it does very well in my dry, sandy soil. The flowers, which bloom in very early spring, are exquisite–pure white and delicate. And the suckers are easy to dig up and replant. All in all, a lovely tree.

I’ve grown these trees for more than 15 years, but I’ve yet to taste a ripe plum. The birds get them all the second they’re ripe. But that’s why I decided to grow them in the first place.