EDIBLE ORNAMENTALS: BERRY BUSHES

There’s no need to choose between a beautiful landscape and one that produces food for you and your family!  There are many options for fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, and even vegetables that are as ornamental as any traditionally grown for their appearance.  This year on phigblog I’m featuring a different all-star edible ornamental each month, starting with trees and working my way down to annuals.

Spectacular fall color of blueberry bushes in the landscape.

TOP FIVE ALL-STAR EDIBLE ORNAMENTAL BERRY BUSHES:

1. HIGHBUSH BLUEBERRY (Vaccinium corymbosum)

Blueberries are the poster child for a shrub that would be planted exclusively for its ornamental qualities if it weren’t already so well known for its fruit.  I imagine I needn’t say much about its edible qualities.  Some consider this nature’s perfect berry: delicious, easy to pick, no seeds, no spines.  Good fresh or in pies, preserves, or of course pancakes!  Along with apples and peaches, this is the fruit I get asked about planting most frequently.

Blueberries in bloom

But did you know that blueberries are also a stunningly beautiful plant in multiple seasons?  In spring, they’re covered with small urn-shaped flowers of white or pink that resemble the floral display of their landscape relative Japanese Pieris.  This is followed in summer by scores of attractive blue berries hanging among clean green or blue-green leaves.  Autumn is the most spectacular season for blueberries, with many varieties displaying bright crimson fall color rivaling that of Burning Bush.  Even winter holds interest, with new stems often transitioning to an attractive red hue.  It’s difficult to top this year-long combination of ornamental features even without considering the fruit.

Blueberries are native to the United States and relatively easy to grow.  They’re happy in sun or partial shade, although the more sun the more fruit.   Blueberries are partially self-fertile, but will produce more fruit if a second cultivar is planted for cross-pollination.  They’re largely pest and disease free, however netting is often necessary to protect the harvest from birds.  Some winter pruning of the oldest stems can help maximize fruit quality and quantity.  The primary limitation in growing blueberries is their requirement of very acidic soil, in the range of 4 to 5 pH.  Testing your soil in advance of planting is strongly recommended.  Soil pH can be lowered to the desired range by the addition of garden sulfur, peat moss, coffee grounds, pine needles, or other acidic materials.  Even after planting, it’s a good idea to keep adding these materials on an annual basis.  Blueberries are also well-adapted to container growing and this can be a good option where soils are very alkaline or to create a wonderful edible ornamental feature for a deck, patio, or rooftop garden.

Blueberries have something of interest in all seasons. . . including summer!

There are many varieties of Highbush Blueberries, generally ranging from 5 to 8 feet tall.  Cultivars differ somewhat in height, color of flowers, fall color, size of berries, and most significantly in time of harvest.  For the home gardener, it’s often nice to include blueberries of early, middle, and late seasons to extend the season from June through August.  Lowbush Blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are the classic Maine blueberry, with smaller berries and a low spreading habit.  For those in warmer climes (zones 8 or 9), the southern Rabbiteye Blueberry (Vaccinium asheii) is the best choice.  Rabbiteyes reach 10 to 15 feet in height and often require cross-pollination for fruit set.

2. CLOVE CURRANT (Ribes odoratum)

Another multi-season charmer, the Clove or Buffalo Currant is a handsome berry bush native to the Midwestern states.  Tart like other currants, Clove Currants are also sweet enough for fresh eating and of course make great jams and jellies.  Although black in color, they lack most of the characteristic musty flavor of European black currant.  Although this may disappoint a few gourmands with this acquired taste, most palettes will greatly prefer the sweeter, tamer taste of the Clove Currant.

The wonderfully fragrant, bright yellow flowers of Clove Currant in spring!

Although the jewel-like fruit of red and white currants may outshine them during fruiting, Clove Currants are considerably more attractive plants the rest of the year.  The display starts in spring, when they are covered with sulfurous yellow, trumpet-like flowers with a remarkable clove-like fragrance (hence the name!).  The multi-lobed leaves stay a healthy bluish-green throughout summer and then transition to often beautiful shades of red wine in the fall.

Wine red fall color. . .

Clove currants are easy to grow, with few pest or disease problems.  They are fairly rugged in character and tolerate drought, heat, cold, and a range of soils.  The growth habit is also somewhat wild and irregular, growing generally 5 to 6 feet in size, making them an excellent shrub for a more informal, natural border.  Clove Currants have a tendency to sucker and tip layer, although this is easy to manage as they are not wildly aggressive.  The primary maintenance task is pruning to maximize production, which consists of either removing some of the oldest stems each winter or cutting the whole plant back every four or five years.  Clove currants aren’t as common as they should be in the landscape trade, but are available from specialist native and edible plant nurseries.

3. NANKING CHERRY (Prunus tomentosa)

Prolific bloom in early spring.

Cherry blossoms are certainly a reason to celebrate and the Nanking Cherry is no exception.  In spring, every stem and branch of this large multi-stemmed shrub is covered with pink buds that unfold to beautiful white flowers.  This stunning display is a true harbinger of spring, occurring before leaves have unfurled in early April.  The abundance of this floral showing is matched by an equal bounty of bright red fruit covering the entire plant in early summer.  The small cherry-like fruit is tasty and falls somewhere in between a sweet and tart cherry in flavor.  The great quantity of fruit not only makes a for a second season of beauty, but also ensures that they’ll be plenty for people as well as birds.  Although the downy matte-green leaves and fall color aren’t especially notable, Nanking Cherries do feature a third season of visual appeal.  Especially on older plants, winter interest is created by bronze-colored bark with prominent lenticels and a tendency to peel and curl like birch bark.

In addition to its tasty fruit and multiple seasons of interest, the Nanking Cherry features a rugged hardiness that makes it very easy to grow in many climates and conditions.  Native across much of Asia, it is very adaptable to both cold (zone 3) and drought and has few pest or disease problems compared to other stone fruits.  Nanking Cherry grows quickly as a multi-stemmed shrub, generally 6 to 10 feet in height and width.  Size, habit, fruit and flower color, and flavor can all vary from plant to plant.  Two seedlings are required for pollination and fruit set.  Occasional renewal pruning can increase fruiting, but otherwise Nanking Cherries require minimal care.

Heavy fruit set of the Nanking Cherry makes another spectacular display in early summer.

There are also other types of bush cherries to consider.  Similar in many ways to the Nanking is the Korean or Japanese Bush Cherry (Prunus japonica), which reaches 7 to 8 feet in height and is self-fertile.  For those with more limited space or extreme cold climates, the tart Mongolian Cherry (Prunus fruticosa) reaches only 3′ in height and is hardy to zone 2!  The great fruit breeder Elwyn Meader also developed the Dwarf Bush Cherry (Prunus japonica x jacquemontii), which has tasty sweet-tart fruit on a 3 to 4 foot shrub.  There are three cultivars of Dwarf Bush Cherry: ‘Jan’, ‘Joy’, and ‘Joel’ and two are required for pollination with ‘Joy’ being known as the best pollinator.  All bush cherries feature a fine floral display and prolific, attractive fruit set.

4. ELDERBERRY (Sambucus spp)

Even ignoring its edible qualities, I would rate certain varieties of eldeberry bushes as among the most ornamental of all plants!  In particular, I’m not sure there’s a more beautiful shrub of any kind than the ‘Black Lace’ European Elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’).  Like a cutleaf Japanese Maple, the Black Lace Elder features finely dissected, intensely purple leaves from spring through fall.  Add to that a showy display of star-like flower clusters in late summer, made more star-like by their contrast to the night-sky-colored leaves, and you have a truly stunning, sublime specimen plant!  There are other European Elder beauties to consider and planting two is recommended for best fruit production anyway.  ‘Black Beauty’ has similarly purple leaves, although lacking the fine dissection, but with more intensely pink flowerheads.  ‘Lacinata’ has the cutleaf quality but with green rather than purple leaves.  There are also multiple very attractive variegated forms, including ‘Pulverunlenta’, ‘Madonna’, ‘Marginata’, and ‘Aureomarginata’.  All European Elders are large shrubs, generally reaching up to 15 feet in height.

EDIBLE ORNAMENTALS: SHRUBS

Black Lace elderberry. . . the most beautiful of all plants?

But the fun doesn’t end there!  There is also the native American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which flowers in early summer and is somewhat smaller in form (8-12 feet).  More breeding has been done for production rather than ornamentality, but there is a variegated variety ‘Aurea’ and a cutleaf variety ‘Lacinata’.  There is also the Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) from Eastern Europe, which is again somewhat smaller in stature but features attractive bright red clusters of fruit in late summer.  ‘Sutherland Gold’ is a variety with handsome, deeply cut yellow foliage.  ‘Golden Locks’ is a dwarf yellow variety and ‘Tenuifolia’ resembles a Japanese Maple in form.  Elderberries of all three species feature attractive flower clusters.

So why don’t Elderberries rate #1 on this list?  In general, they aren’t a fruit to eat fresh off the bush and according to some sources, can be poisonous if uncooked.  That said, they do have have considerable edible and medical qualities to recommend them.  The prolific berries do make fine jellies, pies, syrups and even wine!  Sometimes they are combined with other berries to dilute their strong flavor, but many do enjoy it on its own.  Elderberries are also well known as a medicinal, being very commonly used to treat cough, cold, and flu.  They function as an immune system booster and contain high levels of anti-oxidants.  What’s more, the fruit isn’t the only edible part of the Elderberry plant; the flowerheads are  even more tasty than the berries.  In Europe, elderflower-flavored beverages are quite common, but the flowers can also be eaten raw or even fried and consumed as delightful elderflower fritters!

The fruit of the Red Elder are especially attractive, but don't forget that the flowers can be eaten too!

The fruit of the Red Elder are especially attractive. . . but don’t forget that the flowers can be eaten too!

All varieties of elderberry are easy to grow and tolerant of partial shade and wet conditions.  Their habit is multi-stemmed and somewhat irregular, although a more uniform and upright habit can be encouraged via winter pruning.  American Elders tend to sucker and can form very wider thickets if unchecked.  Other than occasional maintenance pruning, very little is required in terms of care and elderberries suffer little from pests or disease.  Leaf burn can occasionally be a problem for some of the variegated and yellow-leaved forms.  Some of the ornamental varieties have become fairly commonly available in the landscape trade in recent years.  If you are more interested in fruit production than the specific ornamental qualities, many varieties selected for size and quantity of berries are available from specialist edible plant nurseries.

5. OREGON GRAPEHOLLY (Mahonia aquifolium)

Few beautiful landscapes are complete without some evergreen element. . . why should an edible landscape be any different?  Although there are relatively few options for food-producing evergreen plants, Grapeholly tops my list for the most ornamental.  While adding much needed green through winter, what makes Grapeholly so exceptional is its multiple seasons of interest.  The broad holly-like leaves emerge in spring with colors from bronze to almost chartreuse, followed by deep green in summer and maturing to purple tones in winter.  I’ve found that a few older leaves will also suddenly change to bright orange or red and that this can happen any time of year, creating a startling ornamental accent.  As if the leaves weren’t enough, Grapeholly also features a very early spring display of fragrant, sulfur-yellow flowers.  This is followed by bright blue, grape-looking fruit in summer.  Grapeholly berries are tart and not especially suited to fresh eating, but are commonly made into tasty jellies by folks in their native Northwest states.  The fruit is also much beloved by birds.

The bright blue berries of Grapeholly contrast multi-hued leaves in summer!

Oregon Grapeholly is very shade tolerant and quite cold hardy for a broadleaf evergreen (zones 5 to 8).  It does best with some protection from winter sun and wind and although fairly adaptable, does prefer well-drained and acidic soils.  Due to its somewhat irregular and often suckering growth habit, Grapeholly is probably better suited to naturalistic landscapes rather than formal ones.  It usually reaches 6 feet in height at maturity, but some forms are more compact and lower growing.  Closely related are Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei) and Japanese Mahonia (Mahonia japonica), which differ primarily in having larger, broader leaves that give them a striking and distinctly pre-historic appearance.  Their leaves retain their green hue rather than turning purple in winter and their flower display is even earlier (often February!).  All Mahonia berries are edible, although I haven’t seen a comparison of relative flavor.  At least on the East Coast, Leatherleaf and Japanese Mahonias are more common in the landscape trade, although Oregon Grapehollies can be found as well.

Unusual winter flowers, irregular habit, and wide green leaves give Mahonia a distinct pre-historic appearance. . .

There are a few other options for edible evergreen shrubs.  Did you know that the ubiquitously planted Barberries (Berberis) are edible and all the rage with certain high-end restaurants these days?  There are also many evergreen bamboo species that feature tasty edible young shoots, although as always be aware of their spreading nature when considering planting.  Folks in warmer climates have a much wider range of options to consider.  Here in zone 7 Philadelphia, we’re experimenting with Evergreen Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum), Tea (Camellia sinensis), Chilean Guavas (Myrtus ugni molinae), Pineapple Guavas (Feijoa sellowiana), and Olives (Olea europea), all of which are extremely attractive in addition to their food production.

What other shrubs almost made this list?  With a criteria of combined edibility and ornamentality, I  gave serious consideration to Saltspray Roses (Rosa rugosa), Flowering Quinces (Chaenomeles speciosa), and Chokeberries (Aronia spp).  I’ll be tackling edible ornamental perennials next and please also see my earlier blog article on edible ornamental trees

EDIBLE ORNAMENTALS: FRUIT TREES

There’s no need to choose between a beautiful landscape and one that produces food for you and your family!  There are many options for fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, and even vegetables that are as ornamental as any traditionally grown for their appearance.  This year on phigblog I’m going to feature a different all-star edible ornamental each month, starting with trees and working my way down to annuals.

Fall foliage of juneberries range from yellow to orange to brick red.

TOP FIVE ALL-STAR EDIBLE ORNAMENTAL TREES:

Although all fruit trees are attractive in bloom and when loaded with ripe fruit, the following trees would stand out for their ornamental qualities even without regard for the delicious fruit they provide:

Juneberry in bloom.

1. JUNEBERRY (Amelanchier spp)

Also known as serviceberry, shadblow, and saskatoon, this native tree wins my top prize due to its multiple seasons of beauty.  In fact, juneberries are very common in the landscape trade (usually sold as serviceberries) because of their aesthetic qualities and general adaptability.  It is their excellent fruit that is more commonly overlooked.

There are multiple species with slight variations, but all share the same basic characteristics.   Juneberries start the spring off with a fine display of white flowers covering the tree in April before the leaves emerge.  This is followed by the berries, which mature from pink to dark purple in June (hence the preferred name).  The berries are generally fairly prolific and taste a lot like blueberries, with small seeds that add a hint of almond.  I find their flavor best when they’re transitioning from red to purple, before they’ve fully darkened.  They’re great for fresh eating and make excellent pies and preserves.  Birds also love them, so you may have some competition.  The fact that the fruit is small and also popular with birds (fruit rarely survives long enough to drop) makes Juneberries one of the few advisable fruits for street tree plantings.  June is a joyful time in my West Philly neighborhood for me and a few other Juneberry enthusiasts, as walking to the trolley stop always includes browsing on handfuls of delectable berries along the way.

Blueberry-like fruit!

Through the summer, the leaves of the juneberry retain a rich, bluish green hue.  These mature to a dependable and sometimes spectacular fall color, ranging from yellow to orange to brick red depending on species and cultivar.  The smooth grey bark is even a plus for winter interest.   The growth habit tends to be multi-stemmed and sometimes suckering, but juneberries can also be trained to a single trunk with consistent pruning.  Most commonly sold species and cultivars grow in the 15 to 25 foot range, but a few smaller shrub types (A. alnifolia, etc) only get 6 to 8 feet in height.  All are fairly adaptable to soil types and tolerant of part shade.

2. CORNELIAN CHERRY (Cornus mas)

Not in fact a true cherry, this outstanding edible ornamental is actually a member of the dogwood family.  Cornelian Cherry stands out for its remarkable early bloom, often covered with stunning yellow flowers in March or even February.  Blooming weeks before Forsythia, this harbinger of spring fortells a season of fruit as well as beauty!

Cornelian Cherry is the first bloom of spring!

The summer or early fall fruit resembles a tart cherry in flavor, although it does have its own distinctive taste component as well.  There are both red and yellow fruited varieties and the fruit itself is quite attractive on the tree.  Flavor often improves if left on the tree longer or left to ripen for a couple days off the tree.  Cornelian Cherry has been culvitated for thousands of years in Europe and the Caucasus.  In addition to fresh consumption, they have been dried, juiced, pickled, and otherwise processed into jellies, liqueurs, serbets, pies, syrups, and more.

Fruit resembles a tart cherry.

Cornelian Cherry is very easy to grow, having none of the pest or disease problems that effect true cherries.  They are adaptable to a variety of soils and will grow happily and even produce fruit in partial shade.  Trees can reach twenty or more feet in height, but can be kept smaller with some pruning.  The natural habit is multi-stemmed and upright, although it can be trained to a single trunk and will move towards a more spreading form with age or shade.  In addition to its spectacular bloom and colorful fruit, Cornelian Cherry features attractive dogwood-like foliage that sometimes turns a decent red in fall.  Even in winter, the flaky bark provides some interest.

3. Medlar (Mespilus germanica)

I first experienced the beauty of this old European fruit tree on a stroll through a botanic garden in Florence, Italy before my brother’s wedding.  It was spring and the tree was in bloom, the white flowers resembling those of an old-fashioned single rose.  This made enough of an impression, along with the tree’s relative obscurity and intriguing descriptions of its fruit, that I have since planted a Medlar in both my yard and my brother’s yard.

The Medlar flower resembles an old-fashioned rose!

The rose-like flowers are further enhanced by their contrast to dark green leaves, but the Medlar also has other attractive features.  Fall color can range from yellow to various shades of orange, red, and purple, usually with multiple colors on the tree and even on individual leaves at the same time.  The fruit itself is not particularly handsome but does turn a fair bronze color and will hang on the tree even after the leaves have fallen, creating late fall and winter interest.  In fact, for this reason Medlars are one of the best candidates for fruiting street trees (along with cherries and juneberries) as they are unlikely to make any mess.

Fall color and fruit that tastes like spiced apple sauce. . .

I must concede here that I have yet to taste the Medlar fruit, although I expect to have some from my tree to sample this fall.  Catalogs describe the flavor as that of spiced apple sauce with the texture of a baked apple when fully ripened.  The 1 to 2 inch spherical fruit are often harvested while still hard in late fall and then bletted (stored until they soften) for a couple weeks.  It is also possible to leave the fruit on the tree until it softens, although this can result in a somewhat drier texture.  Regardless, it is the soft sweet interior flesh that is eaten, not the outer skin or seeds.  Medlars can also be processed into jams, fruit leathers, and pies.  The former popularity of this now obscure fruit can be witnessed in frequent appearances Medieval European art and writings.

The Medlar is a small tree, generally reaching no more than 10 to 12 feet in height, with often picturesque habit.  The tree is easy to grow and long-lived, with few pest or disease problems and minimal need for annual pruning.  Medlars are also quite adaptable to shade, although as with any fruit the quantity of production is greater in full sun.  There are a handful of named cultivars that vary primarily in the size of the fruit and somewhat in growth habit and flavor.  Medlar trees can be ordered from various specialty nurseries (like raintreenursery.com or onegreenworld.com) as bareroots in the spring.  You are highly unlikely to find this old-fashioned, under-appreciated edible ornamental in the local nursery trade!

4. Paw Paw (Asimina triloba)

This remarkable fruit tree instantly adds a tropical feeling to your yard!  Although native from Texas up to New York and Nebraska, the Paw Paw is closely related to such tropical cousins the Custard Apple, Cherimoya, and Sweetsop.  The fruit itself is unique for its northerly environs, up to 6″ long and mango-like in form.   It  matures from green to yellow-brown in late summer and the ripe fruit is usually split down the middle and eaten with a spoon.  The soft flesh of the Paw Paw is reminiscent of banana custard, a real treat for a northern orchardist!  Although the fruit doesn’t have a long shelf life (the primary reason why most Americans aren’t familiar with this wonderful American fruit), it can also be made into pies or other baked goods.  Wild pawpaws can be somewhat variable in flavor and texture quality, but a lot of breeding work has been done in recent years and many improved named varieties are now available from specialist nurseries.

Some call it the ‘Banana of the North’!

The primary ornamental feature of the Paw Paw is its large, lush, drooping leaves that are so unusual for a plant native to northern woods.  The lance-shaped leaves can be a foot long and remain deep-green all summer before shifting to an often spectacular golden yellow in the fall.  The tree tends towards conical in form and usually will reach 15 to 20 feet in height.  Its natural habit is also to send up suckers from its root system, eventually resulting in a wide thicket if left to its devices.  The Paw Paw also has fascinating if not especially ornamental flowers in late spring.  The flowers can be two inches across and transition from green to a deep reddish purple, but because they hang downwards are not particularly noticeable except up close.  Paw paw flowers are also somewhat malodorous, as they are intended to attract certain beetles and carrion flies rather than the bees that pollinate most fruit trees.  Because these unusual pollinators aren’t always common, hand-pollinating from one tree to another with a paintbrush can greatly boost fruit set.

Large tropical leaves transition to golden yellow fall color. . .

Paw paws are generally very easy to grow and have little or no pest or disease problems of note.  They also require little in the way of annual pruning other than cutting back suckers if a more tidy form is desired.  What’s more, they almost entirely deer proof!  In the wild, pawpaws are generally found as understory trees in woodland riverbottoms.  They do like some shade while young and will successfully fruit in shade, but as with most fruiting plants they are most productive in full sun.  They also prefer rich moist soils, but are actually much more adaptable to a wide range of conditions than many assume.  Pawpaws are also taprooted, so don’t transplant well and generally need to be planted as small container plants.  Two different varieties are required for pollination.

5.  ASIAN PEAR (Pyrus pyrifolia, ussuriensis, and x bretschneideri)

Asian Pear espalier in spring.

Asian Pears have a wide range of seasonal attributes that make them one of the most beautiful of fruit trees.  In spring they are covered with large clusters of attractive white flowers.  The leaves unfold to a deep glossy green, wider and larger than those of European Pears.  In summer, the large round fruit add additional interest, ranging from russet brown to yellow in coloration.  Asian Pears can be stunning in fall, with leaves maturing to a wide range of colors from yellow to orange to red to purple, sometimes all on the same tree.  Even winter can be a season of interest, with older trees displaying picturesque form.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the fruit of an Asian Pear is a delightful and surprising combination of crunchy and juicy.  Unlike European Pears, the fruit ripens on the tree.  Because they retain their firmness when ripe, the primary means of determining maturity are coloration and smell.  There are hundreds of named varieties of Asian Pears originating primarily from Japan and China, varying in size, color, and flavor.  Two varieties in close proximity are required for successful fruiting (consult a pollination chart for compatibility), although one variety ‘Shinseiki’ is partially self-fertile.  There are several possible rootstock types for Asian Pears ranging from standard (30′ tall) to semi-dwarf (15′) to dwarf (8′).   Asian Pears are very long lived (decades if not centuries) and can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit when mature.

Fruit in contrast to dark green leaves.

In my experience with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, I’ve found Asian Pears to be the easiest to grow of the common fruit trees.    They seem to suffer little in terms of pest and disease problems, especially in comparison to apples and peaches.  Fireblight can be a serious problem for Asian Pears and needs to be pruned out at the first sign of infection.  There are also a few fireblight resistant cultivars, including ‘Shinko’, ‘Seuri’, and ‘Korean Giant’.  As with all the common fruit trees, annual winter pruning is necessary to create and maintain the healthiest and most productive trees.  Training branches to more horizontal forms from their natural vertical habit is also strongly recommended.

NOTE: Although these five fruit trees made my top edible ornamentals list, I would like to re-emphasize that most fruit trees have attractive qualities.  The stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, and apricots) are all stunning during spring bloom.  Pome fruits (apples, pears, and quinces) all have attractive flowers and handsome fruit.  Their obscure relative the Shipova also has wonderful downy grey-green leaves.  Hawthorns and crab apples are commonly planted as ornamentals and if their fruit quality was a little greater, they may have pushed into my top five with their multiple seasons of beauty.  Persimmons have lovely glossy green leaves, stunning orange fruit, and interesting bark in winter.  Anyone interested in reading about these and edible landscaping in general should read the works of Lee Reich (Landscaping with Fruit, Grow Fruit Naturally, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden).

Spectacular fall colors of an Asian Pear highlighted by an early frost. 

 

UP ON THE ROOF: Expanding Urban Food-Growing

This article appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Permaculture Activist magazine.

“Right smack dab in the middle of town/

I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof/

Up on the roof. . .Up on the roof. . .”

-The Drifters

Rooftop farm at the Uncommon Ground restaurant in Chicago, IL.

Along with the cultivation of vacant lots, rooftops represent the single greatest opportunity for expanding urban food production.  This is particularly true in dense urban cores, where vacant land is less available and adequate light for ground-level food growing is limited by the shade of tall buildings and street trees.  Most urban roofs can support some container growing and, with some engineering assistance, many roofs can actually support significant food production capacity.  The following survey of rooftop food-growing in Philadelphia and elsewhere reveals some of the possibilities.

ROOFTOP FARMING

The potential for rooftop food production in cities is tremendous.  GIS data from PASDA reveals that there are 162,000 buildings in Philadelphia with a total rooftop area of over 16,000 acres.  According to Peleg Kremer, who is completing a dissertation on food production in the city, if even 0.5% of this area were adapted for food production, it would “exceed all the urban farms and community gardens currently in use”.  New York Sun Works has estimated that there are 14,000 acres of unshaded rooftops in NYC that could feed up to 20 million people if converted to hydroponic food production.  I suspect that their estimate doesn’t account for the actual suitability of the roofs for that usage, but even a small percentage would result in a very impactful increase in urban food self-sufficiency.  Gotham Greens won first prize in New York’s Green Business Competition in 2010 and is in the process of constructing a 12,000 SF hydroponic rooftop farm that is expected to produce 30 tons of fruit and vegetables a year.  To a Permaculturist, of course, hydroponic systems scream out for polycultures with accompanying fish production.

The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, NY.

Rooftop food growing needn’t be as expensive or energy-intensive as Gotham Greens’ 1.4 million dollar venture.  It can be as simple as placing a few planters or containers on your roof.  A couple years ago I assisted a family in setting up a container garden on top of their garage.  Although the property did include a small backyard, it was too shady for vegetable production- a very common problem in the city.  We set up a series of containers all along the load-bearing walls, with a total combined planting area of around 60 SF watered by a drip irrigation system on an automated timer.  The roof was planted with a variety of vegetables and herbs and even a couple dwarf blueberry bushes.  The whole installation was completed for no more than a couple hundred dollars in materials costs.  Although it is necessary to consult with an engineer before any rooftop installation, most roofs can handle a minor addition of weight in the form of a few planters.

The Philadelphia Rooftop Farm (PRooF) partnered with the Community Design Collaborative (CDC) in 2010 to explore the possibility of farming a diverse assortment of residential roofs in the city.  The idea being pursued by PRooF is the conversion of otherwise wasted residential roof space into food production, with the homeowners receiving a share of the produce and the rest being either sold or donated to emergency food services.  The CDC’s team of architects, engineers, and designers created a detailed report on all aspects of the project’s feasibility.    This included a design for a prototype self-watering container constructed from corrugated polypropylene boxes (available commercial versions are prohibitively expensive for a project of scale).  It also analyzed 10 proposed residential roofs in the city and found that rowhomes, which comprise a majority of Philadelphia housing stock, have much greater potential for rooftop production than twins or singles.  The report includes several alternate designs for residential rooftop farming, employing both containers on the roof and beds built into roof decks straddling party walls.

Productive rowhouse rooftop garden created by PRooF founder.

My overall conclusion from reading the CDC’s report for PRooF is that the costs and difficult logistics of such diffuse production are likely prohibitive for a commercial or even non-profit venture as proposed.   However, the detailed report should be useful for homeowners looking to produce on their own roofs, for whom legal and accessibility issues are less of a challenge.  Additionally, the strategy can and should be easily adapted from single family homes to use on larger structures, like commercial, industrial, and apartment buildings.  Such are more frequently over-engineered for rooftop capacity, often have much easier existing roof access, and present a more efficient concentration of larger production space.  NYC already features two such rooftop farms of over an acre in size, the Eagle Street Farm in Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Grange Farm in Queens.  Milwaukee is the home of Community Growers, the world’s first rooftop CSA.  There is certainly great potential for this in Philadelphia.  Indeed, the Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm is currently raising funds to get their operation started on the 3 acre rooftop of the SHARE Food Program warehouse in the West Allegheny neighborhood.  In addition to all the buildings in use, the city also features the low-hanging fruit of more than 700 abandoned factories.  These relics of the Philadelphia’s industrial past are begging to be re-imagined with rooftop farms and floors of aquaculture, mushroom, and vermicompost production, perhaps combined with mix-use residential, artistic, and commercial loft space.

The roof of Philadelphia’s Noble restuarant.

ROOF-TO-RESTAURANT

It is a natural fit for restaurants interested in the local food movement to begin to enhance their cuisine with produce from gardens located above their patrons’ heads.  Chicago’s Uncommon Ground restaurant supplies their kitchen from a half-acre mini-farm on its roof, the first ever certified organic rooftop farm.  Although the produce grown there represents only a fraction of the total used in the kitchen, it is not an insignificant contribution and has generated considerable interest and awareness with the public.

Grace Wicks, a Philadelphia garden designer, has been developing rooftop food production with a series of restaurants in Center City.  I visited a couple of the roofs with her in the fall of 2010.  At Noble, you could look up from your dining table and see some of the garden beds framed in the skylights.  Their roof featured 3 long herb beds of approximately 15 feet by 2 feet, each with a different theme: lemon (lemon grass, lemon verbena, lemon balm, etc), herbes-de-provence (basil, thyme, lavender), and edible flowers (calendula, borage, nasturtiums, etc).  There were also a series of individual containers in which tomatoes, basil, and a variety of peppers were grown.  The Noble garden was tended by the cook staff and its produce is incorporated into the menu.  Once a month the restaurant hosts a small private rooftop dinner with a special menu created by the head chef based upon the flavors of the roof.  Sadly, Noble has since disappeared from the fickle scene of Philadelphia restaurants.

Wicks has also worked with the 4 Seasons, a large luxury hotel featuring the fine dining Fountain Restaurant.  The engineering department at the hotel has made some interesting strides towards sustainability, including using co-generation from its natural gas heating to provide 30% of the building’s total electricity use.  A hotel-wide composting program was instituted in 2007 and in 2010 their own compost filled a series of raised beds on the ample roof of the building.  Besides a wide variety of herbs and vegetables, the roof plantings include strawberries, blueberries, and hardy kiwi vines.  The head chef is also the head gardener and works the produce into restaurant specials (rooftop blueberry pancakes, sky salad, etc).

Up on the roof at the Four Seasons hotel.

THE ENGINEERED APPROACH

New buildings can be engineered to hold additional rooftop weight, thereby allowing a significant increase in urban food production by moving it overhead.  I recently had the pleasure of designing rooftop gardens for Sheldon Crossing, a new platinum-LEED townhouse development in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia.  In addition to geothermal heating, solar panels, and other green features, the homes were engineered to support the weight of 15” of soil on their roofs.  This is enough depth for genuine gardens, including a native grass lawn, perennials, shrubs, and even small trees.  I created 15 alternate plans for the site, varying from entirely edible landscapes to Japanese gardens to modern minimalist styles.  Unfortunately LEED standards credit only all-native plantings and this limitation was imposed on the final plan installed on the show unit.  The final design included a mostly open lawn of native grasses in the front section overlooking the city and a walled stroll garden of native plantings in the back.  The back garden does include a Juneberry (Amelanchier), admired for its ornamental qualities as well as its fruit.  Another 15 units are proposed and I’m hopeful that some of the more edible-intensive designs will be chosen by some of the buyers.  One would also hope that the LEED standards are revised at some point to also recognize the environmental value of edible landscaping.

Rooftop garden at the platinum LEED Sheldon Crossing.

Interestingly, Philadelphia also features a remarkable historic rooftop garden.  Architect Clarence Siegel designed the Garden Court Plaza in the late 1920’s.  Four tall, opulent towers were intended, connected by a large parking garage with a private park for residents on the roof.  Only one of the towers and the parking garage were completed when construction was halted by the stock crash in 1929.  I recently visited the rooftop park with a friend who lives in the tower and one can imagine it as it was, with wide lawns, trees, gardens, and an ornate central pond.  The roof totals more than an acre in size and appears to have at least 18” of soil.  A couple dozen of the residents currently grow vegetables and flowers in garden plots on the roof, but it is primarily used for cookouts, soccer games, and recreation.  A few ornamental cherries remain and ducks visit the pond seasonally.  Certainly there is potential for a great deal of food production there and if this could be engineered in 1929, the possibilities for today seem encouraging.

Historic rooftop park at Philadelphia’s Garden Court Plaza.

BEEKEEPING & ROOFTOP LIVESTOCK

Folks have been beekeeping on urban roofs for centuries in Paris, London, and the other capitals of Europe.  Honeybees are the most sensible livestock for urban rooftops.  Cities are actually surprisingly excellent places for honey production because of the diversity of landscape plantings, weeds, and high pollen availability from the preponderance of male trees.  Urban honey indeed fares well in taste tests.  Housing bees on rooftops keeps them largely out of the way of humans- I’ve been beekeeping on a friend’s rooftop in West Philadelphia for a couple years and no neighbors have noticed or commented.  It seems eminently feasible for cities to be self sufficient in honey production.  Of course, bees also provide many other benefits including free pollination services, wax, and other value-added and medicinal products.  (See my previous article about urban beekeeping for more information).

Harvesting rooftop honey in West Philly!

There’s been an explosion in hobby (small scale, non-commercial) beekeeping in recent years.  The Philadelphia Beekeeper’s Guild was formed about a year ago and membership is now approaching a hundred, the majority of whom are new beekeepers.  In West Philadelphia, a gourmet food shop called ‘Milk & Honey’ started an initiative this year in which customers signed up to host hives in their yards or on their roofs.  Some of the honey was given to the hosts and the rest is sold at the store, with a percentage of profits going to support the Philadelphia Orchard Project.

Honeybees are not the only viable livestock for roofs.  One of my favorite stories from a friend’s recent visit to Havana was of a rooftop meat farm.  Rabbits and guinea pigs (commonly eaten in parts of the Caribbean and Latin America) were being raised on a rooftop, largely fed by grass clippings from a baseball field across the street.  There is also a culture of raising pigeons on urban roofs in NYC and other cities- perhaps these should be considered for potential food production.  Worms for vermicomposting would seem another rooftop possibility, although perhaps a better choice for cellars.

WHY ROOFTOP FOOD-GROWING?

The more food production that can be accomplished within cities, the more outlying areas can be retained or restored to the natural ecologies that support us all.  Urban food production results in multiple ecological benefits.  The more locally food is produced, the lesser the environmental impact in terms of transport and the lesser the degradation of nutrient density due to transport time.  What could be more local than the roofs over our heads?  Rooftop food production is also by necessity primarily small scale and intensive, thus avoiding the devastating environmental impacts of industrial, large-scale farming.

Veggies and herbs on a garage roof.

Expanding our food self-sufficiency will become increasingly essential as our present system of global, industrial food production becomes increasingly costly and unsustainable due to increasing demand and declining fossil fuel supplies to support it.  Cities are defined by their population density and this ratio of people to land makes them especially food insecure and vulnerable to future disruptions in supply.

Although cities are unlikely to ever produce all of their own food, significant contributions are certainly possible.  During World War II, urban victory gardens provided 40% of the produce consumed in the United States.  This is not an unreasonable number to attain again.  Following the collapse of the USSR and its sudden plunge into a post-industrial economy, Havana Cuba experienced years of hunger and difficult transition to a more self-sufficient agriculture.  The city now produces the majority of its own food in 30,000 community gardens and numerous rooftop gardens.  Cities across the globe need to undertake a similar transformation before it is forced upon them.  Rooftops are important place to start, as they represent a unique opportunity to expand food production without displacing other important urban functions.

BACK-TO-THE-CITY MOVEMENT?

In an overpopulated world straining the limits of its natural resources and carrying capacity, one can argue that the most important function of cities is to house as many people as densely as possible.  The more people that can be housed in cities, the more outlying areas can be shifted to food production and/or natural(ized) areas that provide the ecological functions that support us all (clean water, clean air, sustainably harvested wood, wild foods, etc).  Dense cities also allow for significant per-capita energy savings in personal transport through walkability, bikeability, and the feasibility of public transit systems.  These energy savings are compounded by reduced heating and cooling costs due to larger building sizes, smaller living spaces, and shared walls.  In fact, as the most densely populated piece of land in the United States, Manhattan ranks dead last in terms of per capita energy consumption.

If you are not a farmer of manager of natural lands, it is probably better for the earth if you live in a dense settlement.  The suburbs are for the most part an ecological disaster or, as James Kunstler proclaims, “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of civilization”.   If we are to attempt to transition to a post peak energy world, I would posit that now is the time for a genuine Back-to-the-City movement.  Such a movement has already begun, as evidenced by the recent revitalization of many urban cores and the slowing and even reversing of urban population loss in many American cities.  These cities need creative urban farmers and thoughtful Permaculture designers to rebuild and renew them and make them as livable and self-sufficient as possible.

Alternate edible landscape design for Sheldon Crossing rooftop.

MAKING MASON BEE HOMES

It’s both fun and easy to make nesting blocks for mason bees, a highly useful pollinator for orchards and gardens.  Although they don’t produce honey, there are several advantages to keeping mason bees.  They are gentle, with stings no stronger than a mosquito bite.  They are very efficient pollinators; only a few hundred are needed per acre to pollinate an orchard.  Mason bees are remarkably easy to keep, having few pest or disease problems and minimal management needs.  Last, they are very industrious and fun to observe in action.

Mason bees are fuzzy and fun to watch. . .

DESCRIPTION

Mason bees are one of many types of small solitary bee species that aid greatly in pollination.  There are two primary species of mason bees used for pollination: the native blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) and the hornfaced bee (Osmia corniforns) from Japan.  Unlike honeybees, mason bees don’t live in hives with queens and workers.  Each female bee mates and makes her own nest of mud, stores pollen and nectar, and lays her eggs.  Although they don’t live in colonies, they do prefer to nest close to other mason bees.

A native blue orchard bee at work.

Mason bees are only active for four to six weeks in the spring, making them ideal pollinators for orchards.  Unlike honeybees, male mason bees also contribute to pollination.  In Japan, hornfaced bees have been used in commercial orchards for over sixty years and are rapidly replacing honey bees for this task.  After their busy spring season, mason bees spend the rest of the year in their nests, first as larvae and then as dormant adults through the winter.

BUILDING MASON BEE HOMES

In nature, mason bees mostly nest in hollow reeds, bamboo, and holes made by other insects in wood.  Making homes for them only requires mimicking these conditions.  Research has shown that holes 5/16″ wide and 4 to 10 inches deep are ideal, although some variance from this will work to a lesser degree.  Mason bee homes can be made in a number of different styles with varying degrees of involvement and management required.

Nesting blocks painted with yellow and blue help bees to find their way home.

ATTRACTING NATIVE BEES

Wild mason bees and other native pollinators are everywhere.  Bringing wild mason bees into your landscape can be as simple as drilling holes in existing stumps, logs, or posts.  In the case of urban areas not close to a sufficiently “natural” landscape, it might be necessary to put out drilled blocks in such an area and then bring the nested blocks back to your own landscape the following year.

CONSTRUCTING NESTING BLOCKS

Managing mason bees more actively and effectively is also quite easy.  There are many suppliers of pre-made nesting blocks and tubes, but making your own is cheap, simple, and fun for all ages.  Here’s a how-to video from a teenager and one from an elderly man.  You can basically use any piece of scrap wood of at least 4″ thickness, avoiding pressure treated or aromatic woods like cedar.  Lay out a series of holes approximately 1″ apart on a side that will allow for holes at least 4″ deep.  If you don’t intend to use liners (see below), drill the holes with a 5/16″ bit and avoid drilling all the way through the wood.  If the blocks are to be put in an exposed location, you will want to add a piece of shingle or other material as a roof to protect from rain.

Making a nesting block is as easy as drilling holes in a piece of scrap wood. . .

BLOCKS WITH PAPER LINERS

The use of paper liners in the holes allows the mason beekeeper to more effectively control pests and diseases.  Slight modifications are required for this style of nesting block.  To accommodate the liners, it’s necessary to drill the holes slightly wider, with a 3/8″ bit, and drill all the way through the wood.  Paper or cardboard liners are commercially available, but again it’s cheap and easy to make your own.  Cooking parchment works best, although wax paper may also work.  You’ll need a rolling rod at least a couple inches longer than the holes of your block.  A 1/4″ metal rod or dowel works fine.  The parchment should be cut in to sections 4 to 5 inches wide and about 3/4″ longer than the holes.  Tightly roll a section on to the rolling rod and then push it into one of the holes. When you release the parchment, it should unroll and expand to fill the hole.  Repeat with all the holes, lining up the ends of the liners flush with one edge of the bock and sticking out on the other side.  Bend these exposed ends down with a sharp crease (they’ll be used to remove the liners from the block at the end of the season).  Seal the block end with duct tape or plywood cut to size and nailed into place.

After the paper liners have been inserted and tabs folded up, the final step will be sealing the back with duct tape.

SETTING OUT YOUR NESTING BLOCKS

Early spring is the time to set out your bee blocks.  Mason bees begin to emerge at around the same time as crocuses and forsythias bloom.  Nesting blocks need to stay dry, so they are best placed under eaves, decks, or other protected spots.  Where there are no convenient structures, bee shelters can be created using garbage cans, dog houses, or any other item that will give some weather protection.  Bee blocks should always face south or east, receiving some morning or early afternoon sun, and be placed so that the holes are horizontal.  Mason bees also require a source of clay or mud to build their nests.  Dig a small pit around a foot deep and make sure it’s open and accessible throughout the active season.

South facing bee shelter.

STORING YOUR MASON BEES

In late spring the adult bees begin to slow down and die off.  Although you can leave the blocks out year round, you’ll have much better survival rate if you move them inside as soon as the active season is over.  They should be kept in a dry, protected space; a basement or unheated outbuilding work well.  Temperatures should ideally stay between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit through November.  Some colder temperatures (but not much below freezing) are required over the winter in order to break dormancy in the Spring.  With paper liners, the bees can be removed and put in the fridge in a box with a moist sponge or towel to maintain humidity.

Removing dormant bees from their paper liners for inspection and storage.

PESTS & PROBLEM SOLVING

The primary pest that affects mason bees is a tiny parasitic wasp (Monodontomerus obscurus).  The wasps begin to attack mason bee nests just as the active season is ending, so it’s important to remove your nesting materials promptly in late May to minimize damage.  It’s also a good idea to change to new nesting blocks or tubes every couple years and either sanitize or destroy the old materials.  This is easy with paper liners: simply remove the dormant bees each winter, give them a 1% bleach bath, let them dry overnight, and then store them in a box in the fridge until spring.  In blocks where the bees can’t easily be removed, place them out in the spring in garbage bags with a small hole to fly out.  The bag will confuse the bees when they return and they’ll choose to nest in the new blocks you set out instead.

Dormant bees are set out to dry after their bath. . .

Birds can sometimes cause problems for mason bees.  You can protect the nesting boxes by covering with chicken wire  with holes at least 2″ wide.  Bird-scaring tape can also help.  If necessary, bees in storage can be protected from mice and other pests by storing in a garbage can, although some holes for ventilation are required.

MORE INFO

Here’s an online resource with very detailed information about keeping blue orchard bees, but I prefer this more concise description for hornfaced bees.  If my description was confusing, here’s some more details about homemade paper liners.  To purchase dormant bees and commercially made nesting materials, check out www.beediverse.com or www.pollinatorparadise.com.  In southeast Pennsylvania, the Back Yard Fruit Growers sell empty tubes and dormant bees at their events.  Thanks to Darren Gordon for sharing his time and knowledge about keeping mason bees.  Happy pollinating!

A bundle of commercial mason bee tubes.

TREES OF JOY

This summer I had the pleasure of visiting with Bassem Samaan and seeing one of the finest examples of edible landscaping I’ve ever seen.  Amidst the most typical of suburban neighborhoods in Bethlehem PA, Samaan has transformed his yard into a paradise of fruit.  He is successfully growing an astoundingly wide variety: figs, pomegranates, guavas, maypops, pawpaws, persimmons, olives, jujubes, loquats, peaches, plums, apricots, asian pears, mulberries, che, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, grapes, and kiwiberries.  Some may be surprised that all these fruits can be grown an hour north of Philadelphia in climate zone 6.  This is accomplished through careful selection of hardy varieties and container growing combined with a small greenhouse in the backyard.  See my post “Fresh Figs for Cold Climates” for more information about techniques for protecting tender plants from cold.

Fig Collection

Bassem Samaan with his fig collection.

Samaan has also started a small hobby business of propagating and selling fig varieties.  He currently has almost 150 cultivars, many of which he collected and named himself from cuttings taken across the country.  Check out Samman’s website (treesofjoy.com) for details about fig varieties and information about purchasing.

Needless to say, this is a powerful example of what can be done with a landscape.  The lush bounty of Samaan’s landscape is in stark contrast to the yards surrounding his.  He says his neighbors have shown little interest in what he’s done, not even bothering to pick the grapes on their side of a shared fence.  A drastic change in mindset is needed!  The suburbs, as unsustainable as they are in many ways, could easily be self-sufficient in fruit production.

fig & pom

Fig and pomegranate as foundation shrubs!

persimmon & pawpaw

Persimmon and pawpaw in the front yard.

pom

Pomegranates in zone 6?!

greenhouse

Backyard greenhouse with hardy bananas.

greenhouse inside

The greenhouse is primarily used for propagation and winter storage.

kiwi trellis

Samaan explains his kiwiberry trellis.

Persimmons are stunningly beautiful and delicious in the fall.

FRESH FIGS FOR COLD CLIMATES

So I can’t very well have a blog called PHIG without writing about growing figs in Philly. . .

One of the wonder’s of Philadelphia’s fine fruit-growing climate is that we can grow certain subtropicals like the fig.  South Philly is full of decades old fig trees brought over by immigrants from Italy and other Mediterranean countries.  These trees were probably coddled in their youth, wrapped every winter as fig-growers still do in Brooklyn and other northly regions.  South Philly’s figs now grow unprotected, often untended, and fill entire back yards with little attention.  Our climate has actually become more suitable for figs in recent years as a result of the urban heat island effect and the onset of global warming.

Figs in a South Philly front yard.

Figs in a South Philly front yard.

Figs are a great crop for Philly for several reasons: taste, productivity, and ease of care.  Many of you have probably enjoyed dried figs, but few have had the pleasure of fresh, ripe fig.  Most of the folks I’ve planted figs with in my work the Philadelphia Orchard Project (www.phillyorchards.org) have come no closer than a Fig Newton.  A fresh fig of good variety is a truly sublime fruit, bursting with flavor and texture.  People always point to the difference between a garden tomato and a store-bought one as a reason to grow your own vegetables.  I would posit an equivalent contrast between the experience of a fresh fig and a dried one.

Fresh figs are juicy, flavorful, sublime.

Another reason to grow figs is their relative ease of care.  Apples, pears, cherries, peaches and all the common tree fruits suffer from a wide variety of pest and disease problems.  Figs are generally problem free and require relatively little in the way of pruning, watering, fertilizing, or other maintenance.  In a good year, a single mature fig tree can produce 40 lbs of fruit!  Figs are also beautiful plants: their large lobed leaves create a lush Mediterranean feel.

FIGS FOR PHILLY

There are over a thousand species of figs (many Ficus are quite common as houseplants), but only two are grown for their edible fruit: Ficus carica and Ficus sycamorus.  Three types of Ficus carica are grown in the United States.  Smyrna Figs are the most commonly available, grown commercially in California but not at all adapted to colder climes.  The San Pedro Fig can be grown in the north, but requires pollination and generally also necessitates container growing.  The Common Fig is both self-fertile and the best adapted to growing in Philly and other cold climes.  There are dozens if not hundreds of named varieties of Common Figs, varying greatly in taste, color, and growth habit.  The varieties that do best in the north are generally very vigorous growers that can survive some winter damage or pruning and still produce the next season.  Bassem Samaan (www.treesofjoy.com), a fig collector and grower from Bethlehem PA, recommends the following varieties for the Northeast: Hardy Chicago, Celeste, Dark Portuguese, LSU Gold and Brooklyn White.  Brown Turkey is the most commonly planted hardy fig, but in general its taste is considered somewhat inferior.

Figs come in many colors, shapes, and sizes- even striped!

Figs come in many colors, shapes, and sizes- even striped!

BASICS OF FIG CARE

Figs need full sun (6+ hours) for good fruit production.  Once established, they are pretty drought tolerant and require little additional watering except during prolonged droughts.  Figs also require minimal fertilizing, although a little compost in the spring can be helpful.  Figs produce their main crop in late summer and fall.  Brushing the fruit with olive oil apparently can hasten the ripening process.  If you successfully overwinter branches of the common fig (Ficus carica), they can also produce a smaller ‘breba’ crop in early summer.  Although birds, insects, and diseases are generally not a concern, squirrels can be sometimes be a competitor for the fruit.

Protection from winter cold is the primary issue in fig care for Philly and other northerly climes.  With proper attention, figs have been successfully grown outdoors in Chicago and Boston.  I’ve also seen them thriving in unheated greenhouses at 7200′ above sea level in Colorado.  There are four primary strategies for overwintering figs in our climate: microclimates, mulching, wrapping, and container growing.

MICROCLIMATES:

The easiest way to overwinter figs in cold climes is to take advantage of microclimates.  In brief, microclimates are small changes in temperature created by features of the local landscape.  These can occur on scales ranging from a city to a small corner of a yard.  Although Philadelphia is officially in climate zone 6b, the urban heat island effect (all the pavement and brick absorb heat and keep the city several degrees warmer than surrounding areas) results in much of the city being zone 7 in actual practice.  This large microclimate means that other measures may not be necessary to protect figs in the more central and southerly parts of the city.  That said, better safe than sorry, especially in the case of young figs!  In terms of smaller scale microclimates, the best strategy is to plant your fig next to a south-facing wall, which will absorb sunlight during the day and re-radiate the stored heat at night.  A site protected from wind can also make a difference (it’s often wind-chill factor that can take our climate from fig-friendly to one  resulting in winter dieback).  With the right combination of microclimate features, it should even be possible to grow pomegranates (zone 8) in Philly.

A south facing wall is the best spot for a fig.

A south facing wall is the best spot for a fig.

MULCHING

There are several techniques for protecting figs with mulching.  The simplest is just to put down a heavy layer of mulch (fallen leaves, salt hay, wood mulch) around the base of the fig tree to protect the roots.  Temperatures below 15 degrees will likely winterkill the branches, but the fig will happily regrow from its roots and often fruit in the same year.  The proprietors of Russell Gardens (www.russellwholesale.com) in Southampton PA, about an hour north of Philly, have been using this technique successfully for many years.  Mulching can also be used to protect branches.  On a young tree the branches can simply be bent to the ground, pinned, and then mulched.  On older trees, you can prune out the oldest, stiffest branches and bend the rest to the ground.  You can also sever the roots on one side of the tree with a shovel and then bend the whole tree over to the ground on the over side.  Mulching your figs does come with one caveat: rodent damage has sometimes been reported.

WRAPPING

What they do in Brooklyn, Queens, West Philadelphia, Chicago too. . . Many folks from Italian neighborhoods in South Philly and elsewhere will remember the sight of fig trees wrapped in the winter.  It’s no longer necessary in many of these neighborhoods (see microclimates above), but still can be a useful technique for less central, more exposed sites, especially with young trees.  There are many successful approaches to wrapping.  The easiest and best strategy is to trim the fig to somewhere under 6′, tie all the branches together, and then wrap with an old carpet and a tarp.  I’ve also seen folks use a large tomato cage wrapped with a tarp or burlap and then filled with fallen leaves.  Avoid plastic if possible as it can hold moisture that creates mold and potentially damage the tree.  Wrapping is generally done when cold arrives in November and removed when it warms in March.

Large fig cozily wrapped for winter.

Large fig cozily wrapped for winter.

CONTAINER GROWING

Figs are a great container plant.   As is generally the case, growing in containers requires a little more watering and other care than growing in ground.  Figs are best grown in large 15 to 20 gallon containers, although it is certainly possible to have success in smaller ones.  Once they have grown out to fill their container, you will need to repot and root prune every third year or so.  This is best accomplished in late winter or early spring before growth has begun.  Winter protection is as easy as moving the containers into a cellar or unheated garage after their leaves have dropped in fall.  Temperatures in the storage area should not go below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.  While they are dormant, the figs will need minimal watering, only every 3 weeks or so.  Bring the figs back outdoors in the spring after the threat of frigid weather has passed.  Container growing allows folks to grow figs on patios, decks, rooftops, and safely in places with contaminated soil!

Container grown fig on our porch in West Philly.

Container grown fig on our porch in West Philly.

For more info about South Philly figs, check out this awesome article about Giovanni, “The Man Behind the Figs“.

BREAKING OUT IN HIVES: Urban Beekeeping in Philly

This article was co-written by Micah Woodcock and appeared in the August 2009 issue of GRID, Philadelphia’s new urban sustainability magazine.

Backyard beekeeping in Germantown.

Backyard beekeeping in Germantown.

“Bee, bee, bee. . . bee!” 18 month old Isaac recently learned the word and seemed to have forgotten all others.   With his jungle gym located next to his father’s hives in a large Germantown backyard, Isaac showed a fanatic fascination and no fear as we opened the hives for a look.  Philly is in fact full of young bee-obsessed beekeepers.  Our recent urban beekeeping survey and tour revealed that the majority of Philly’s two dozen or so beekeepers started within the last five years.   Their attitudes, knowledge and beekeeping set ups are as diverse as the city itself.

In many ways, honey bees are the perfect urban livestock.  They can be kept in small spaces- even on rooftops.  They are quiet and unaggressive (most “bee” stings are actually perpetrated by bumblebees and hornets).  They require relatively minimal time and financial investment: an average of four hours a month and a few hundred dollars to get started.  Above all, they produce wonderful, abundant honey, which is a much healthier sweetener than the highly refined sugar products now ubiquitous in processed food and on grocery store shelves.  Eating unfiltered, raw honey from your immediate locale is also widely thought to help with seasonal allergies.  Furthermore, when stored in air-tight containers, honey has a shelf life of a few thousand years.  Because of the preponderance of male trees and other common city plantings, urban honey is generally considered to be of high quality.  Beekeepers at Mill Creek and Greensgrow Farms will tell you that their home grown honey often sells out within weeks of harvesting.  With the adaptability of beekeeping, Philadelphia could easily fulfill all of its own demand for honey.

Rooftop beekeeping in Center City.

Rooftop beekeeping in Center City.

Honey bees provide other useful products as well.  The wax used for comb construction can be harvested along with the honey and has countless uses ranging from candlemaking and cosmetics to batik and moustache wax.  After the honey is harvested from the comb it can be placed in a nylon stocking or fine mesh bag, and boiled very briefly to remove impurities, such as dirt and larval casings. The impurities remain in the stocking, which can then be removed, and the wax solidifies on top of the water as it cools. The wax can be melted again and poured into molds to make candles, or combined with other ingredients to make soap.  Having a surplus of honey around can also provide an easy avenue into the art of home-brewing; honey wine (a.k.a. mead) is a very simple and delicious alcoholic beverage easily tackled by folks new to the craft.  Propolis, an anti-microbial substance the bees use to seal and sterilize their hives, has a long history of being used medicinally in the treatment of colds, flu, sore throats, and aching teeth.

Bookcase observation hive inside an apartment.

Observation hive inside an apartment.

Many beekeepers also profess its therapeutic value as a hobby.  This seems to result from the calm both required and induced by working with a living hive.  Honey bees are a social insect whose complicated collective behavior belies the relatively simple biology of a single bee.  Because the queen bee is in most cases singularly responsible for reproduction, one may almost regard a bee colony as a single organism whose many distinct bodies perform highly specialized tasks for the good of the whole.  Worker bees perform a wide variety of roles at different phases of their 8 week lifespan: cell cleaning, larvae nursing, drone and queen feeding, wax production, honeycomb building, pollen packing, propilizing, mortuary service, temperature regulation, water carrying, guarding, soldiering, and foraging.  This division of labor is unlike any other outside of Homo sapiens and results in the peculiar fascination they hold for us.  Who can resist a glimpse into this society in miniature that a glassed-walled observation hive provides?

Bees are also essential pollinators for gardens, farms, and orchards.  Other than wind-pollinated corn, the vast majority of our vegetable, fruit, and nut crops are highly dependent on bees for pollination.  The commercial beekeeping industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that actually makes the vast majority of its money from pollination services rather than honey.  Commercial beekeepers truck their hives across the country following crop pollination seasons, often traveling from New York to Texas to California in a single year.  In recent years, these “rental” hives have been devastated by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which a hive’s worker bees suddenly disappear en masse.  While there is still no clear consensus as to the ultimate cause of CCD, most of the suspected factors relate to the stresses of migratory commercial beekeeping: exposure to pesticides, transmission of insect diseases and varroa mites,  and malnutrition resulting from monocultural food sources.  Whatever the cause, home scale beekeepers have been almost entirely unaffected and there have been no reports of CCD within the Philadelphia beekeeping community.   Considering the vital role bees play in pollination, relocalization of beekeeping may be vital to the future of our food production.

HOW TO JOIN PHILLY’S BEEKEEPING REVOLUTION:

Colorful signage at Mill Creek Farm in West Philly.

Bees at West Philly's Mill Creek Farm.

1.  Find a location.  Philadelphians are currently beekeeping in backyards; on rooftops; and at community gardens, urban farms, public gardens, and schools.   In the case of a backyard or roof, there are a couple strategies to employ if you’re worried about what your neighbors will think.  It’s not too difficult to hide a hive; bees are quiet and often do their foraging up to two miles from their home.  Folks in NYC have even disguised their rooftop hives by painting them to look like chimneys!  The other option is to get your neighbors on board by sharing the honey harvest and allaying their fears about stinging.

2. Find a mentor.  Although a lot can be learned from books, beekeeping is a skill that’s best developed with guidance from an experienced teacher.  If you don’t happen to know any beekeepers, you can connect by taking classes or attending meetings of Beekeeping Associations.  Last year, the Philadelphia Beekeeper’s Guild (www.phillybeekeepers.org) was founded and now boasts dozens of members and well-attended monthly meetings featuring prominent guest speakers expounding on a wide variety of beekeeping subjects.  Neighboring Montgomery County (www.montgomerycountybeekeepers.com) and Chester County (www.chescobees.org) both have long-established groups.

3.  Acquire equipment, supplies, and bees.  To build the most common Langstroth style hive, you will need:
●6-8 hive bodies or supers (stacked boxes that contain the hive)
●9-10 frames per hive body (rectangles of wood that hold the honeycomb)
●Wax foundations (pre-made hexagonal framework to get the bees started)
●Bottom board and outer cover (to protect the hive from the elements)

Micah's rustic top bar hive.

Micah's rustic top bar hive.

All this can be mail ordered from vendors like the Walter T. Kelley Company (www.kelleybees.com) or acquired from local beekeeping groups for around $250.  Assembling your hive will take several days of work.  Alternatively, a more rustic top bar hive (an older form still commonly used in the tropics) can be built for as little as $7.

To get into your hives, you will want to spend another $50 or so on the following supplies:
●Smoker (burns leaves or pine needles to mask alarm pheromones and suppress stinging)
●Hive tool (a useful implement for opening hive bodies and moving frames)
●Bee veil (a mosquito net works just fine to protect the face)

A starter colony of bees including a queen will cost around $100.

4.  Inspect your hive regularly.  After lightly smoking the entrance, open the hive and closely examine each frame for the following:
● Adequate room for the rearing of brood and the storage of food (nectar, pollen, honey) as the season progresses and the hive increases in size.  Add frames and hive bodies as necessary.
● Enough nectar and pollen coming into the hive throughout the season and going into winter.   It is sometimes necessary to supplement their food supply with sugar.
● Health of the laying queen and signs of hive diseases or pests that may require intervention on the part of the beekeeper.
● Signs that the hive may be preparing to swarm.  Bees instinctively like to swarm- it’s how they perpetuate the species.  If not pre-empted by the keeper, a large number of bees will leave with the queen to start a new hive.
A hive inspection typically takes 15-30 minutes and should be conducted weekly during the spring when risk of swarming is highest.  This is of particular importance in the city.  As much as everyone loves bees (even if they don’t know it yet), having a swarm of thousands hanging from a telephone pole in front of your house might make some people a bit nervous.  As the season progresses inspections need not happen as frequently.

Examining a healthy bee frame.

Examining a healthy bee frame.

5.  Extract your honey and beeswax.   The simplest method of harvesting honey from the hive is to cut out sections of comb and eat it!  If you want liquid honey, you can cut out the comb, crush it, and strain it to separate the wax from the honey.  The most common means of harvesting honey, both commercially and by hobbyist beekeepers, is an electric or hand crank extractor.  A thin layer of beeswax cappings is cut from the surface of a full frame and then multiple frames are placed in the extractor, which is spun rapidly to remove the honey. This method allows the beekeeper to harvest honey without crushing the comb, which can be made into other products  or returned to the hive for re-use by the bees.  Extraction is often done twice a year and usually involves a full day’s work.  An extractor typically costs from $350 to $800, but can often be shared or borrowed from beekeeping groups.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Backyard Beekeeper, Kim Flottum and Natural Beekeeping, Ross Conrad.

MORE INFO: www.beesource.com, www.bushfarms.com, www.biobees.com, www.anarchyapiaries.org