Oct.21, 2017: In today's divided and partisan world, I can stand up and declare "I don't give a fig!", literally, and, if you owned a fig tree, you would understand. I consider myself a reasonably generous person and when it comes to produce from my garden, I am a vegephilanthropist. I give away bushels of squash, chard,kale, prunes and other fruits and vegetables I have in abundance to friends, neighbors and even strangers, whether they ask or whether I have to force it upon them. But not figs! They are too precious to my palate. So, keep your hands off my figs and go grow your own, which I'm happy to tell you , out of my own self-interest.

If you live in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon, you can grow cold hardy figs outdoors. Easy peasy. If you are on the coast or Cascades. it's a little dicier. Figs require summer heat and the coast's summer often don't provide that and they also can't take temperatures of -10 F or solidly frozen ground, so the Cascades are too cold.

When I'm talking figs, I'm talking about the common fig, Ficus carica. The genus sports a plethora of tropical and sub-tropical species , some of which we use as houseplants, such as the rubber tree or weeping fig. There are over 200 cultivars of figs grown in North America, but in our area it dries down to about a handful. I myself have a Vern's Brown Turkey fig (named after Oregonian garden writer Vern Nelson). Other recommended varieties for our area are Lattarula, Desert King , White Dakota and Chicago.

As a landscape tree (figs can grow 15- 30' tall), the large lobed leaves give a tropical air to a planting. Figs don't have a compact crown (unless you're pruning alot) and can look a little bit gangly, but it's a minor fault when compared to its fast growth, pest free, low maintenance and drought tolerant characteristics. If you don't want to use an orchard ladder to gather your figs, then topping (which in this case is OK) can help to keep the height manageable.

Right now, fall, is a great time of year to plant. Pick a sunny spot with well drained soil. Organic matter or compost is nice to add, but not essential. And then you just wait. It took me about 6 years from a cutting before I started getting figs. Speaking of cuttings, it's easy to propagate figs. They are rooted from hardwood cuttings, simple layering or air layering (my favorite) and you can find out from somebody else on the internet the details of doing it.

Here in Oregon we get one fig crop a year. More southerly tropical locations will get two. Many fig cultivars produce 2 types of figs, a "main" fig and a" breba" . Brebas form in the spring on last season's wood. They sprout directly under a leaf. Main crop figs grow on current season wood and sprout directly above a leaf. In the Coast Range where I live, I get a crop of brebas in August and the mains never reach maturity to harvest. Brebas are said to be less tasty than main figs, but they're plenty tasty for me and no, you still can't have one.

Most of the cold hardy figs are self pollinating, which is good and bad. Good because we don't have to worry about having male fig flowers around, but bad because we miss out on the utterly fascinating pollination process involving tiny suicidal wasps. In fact, that's what I wanted to write about originally but I got wrapped up in telling you how to get your own figs. Stay tuned for a future series, "Sex and the Single Plant", in which I will delve , in erotic detail, into the kinky sex lives of figs and other swinging plants.

Knowing when to harvest figs was a skill that evaded me for the first couple if years. I always got overly excited and picked too early. Once picked, figs do not ripen. and they taste crappy. Figs, even when ripe, don't keep well. Maybe a week in the fridge. A ripe fig looks and feels like it's overly ripe. It's squishy to the touch and the stem attaching it is drooping. They will often also change color from green to yellowish, goldenish or brownish.

Since figs don't keep long, you have to process them quick. Fresh figs are great but dried figs, to me, is hog heaven. I'm also partial to drunken fig jam, which has lots of brandy in it.

I hope I've discouraged you from asking me for figs and encouraged you to grow your own damn figs!


July 11, 2016: As an arborist, I've had to deliver the sad news to a tree owner that their tree is dying and probably ought to come down. The aftermath is a stump, to which the typical solutions are to have the stump ground out or leave it standing like a headstone at Arlington Cemetery. I would posit a third solution - to turn it into a piece of outdoor art.

Northwestern Oregon is the Chainsaw Bear Capital of the World. . . . I don't actually have data to support that , but drive down any rural road where there's more than 10 people living and I'd bet you a latte that one of those 10 have a chainsaw carved bear on the property. Bears are the bread and butter of chainsaw carvers. "People like them. People want them. We carve 'em" , one carver told me, though I could tell his inner artistic self was frustrated by the crass public marketplace.

The possibilities for a stump are only limited by its size and the talents and imagination of the carver. Everyone has probably driven by a chainsaw carving roadstand. There are even "galleries" where chainsaw art is displayed and sold. Tres chic. But, fortunately for you and your stump, there are also onsite carvers that will come to your property and give that stump a new creative life, for a price. How much does stump carving cost? It's variable depending on size and complexity of the carving but rough estimates I've seen range from $100-$200 a vertical foot for carvings under 5' and $200-$300/foot for taller ones (they usually need scaffolding).

If you're a DIY kind of person, you can try stump carving yourself, though I would highly recommend that you have a good practical background in chainsaw safety, use and sharpening. . I, myself, have taken to stump carving and have found it to be relaxing and meditative. There's nothing like having a screaming chainsaw in my hand and breathing that outdoor air mixed with 2 cycle exhaust to bring out my creative inner self and be at one with the stump. Chanting "OM" over the top of the chainsaw also helps to enhance the awakening process.

I carve morel mushrooms. . . . that's pretty much all I carve, though I have begun a new and exciting project recently - a chantrelle. I'll never do a bear. There are enough of them and being the stump snob that I have become I would recommend that you not either. Should you be faced with the question of "What do I do with that stump?" Below are some eclectic stumps for thought to get your creative sap flowing. P.S. - If you want a stump carved, it starts before the tree removal. Have the tree service leave 4- 8' of stump (it can always be trimmed down to eventual height).

I hope this inspires you to keep the stump grinder out of your yard. And if it's a morel you want (or perhaps in the future, a chantrelle), you know who to contact.

By Guess Who?By Guess Who?


April 18, 2017: Now that spring seems like it just might come, the first sunny days we get , the landscape contractors' phones will be ringing off the hook from potential customers. Being as how I'm a retired landscape contractor, I can now reveal the secret inner world of the landscape contractor - how to find a good one, how to get them interested in your project, where the secret locations of Illuminati landscapers meet and their secret handshake. . . . Well, maybe not the last two, if I value my life,

First of all, it's important to understand that there is a difference between landscapers (landscape contractors) and landscape maintenance people (lawn maintenance, pruning, etc). The former is a licensed profession, the later is not. The former can not only plant plants, but can build retaining walls, decks, fences, patios, outdoor kitchens, irrigation and landscape lighting systems, and lots more; the latter cannot. The former has a bond and liability insurance, the latter may or may not.

Oregon has the most regulated landscape industry in the US. That is a GOOD thing for you, Ms or Mr Consumer. Licensed landscapers must pass a licensing exam that test for technical knowledge and business knowledge. Once a candidate has passed, they must obtain liability insurance and a bond before they can get their business license. If they intend to have employees, they must show proof of having worker's comp. What this means for the consumer is that :

1) You won't be getting someone who was a shoe salesman yesterday and then thought they'd be a landscaper today.

2) If you believe you've had poor work done, you have recourse by filing a claim on the contractor's bond. The Oregon Landscape Contractor's Board (LCB) maintains a free claim and adjudication process for the consumer.

3). A contractor's employees are covered by worker's comp. That means if a worker is injured on your property, you won't have to sell your house to pay for their medical bills.

Hire an unlicensed (and therefore illegal) landscape contractor and you get none of the above. They might or might not be cheaper in the short run, but in the long run, you'll regret it.

I would love to tell you that this consumer protection system will be here for perpetuity but every legislative session, for the past several years, the anti-regulation lobby trots forth some bill or another to eliminate the licensing exam, or entrance requirements, or eliminate all landscape regulations. A smart business person knows that good consumer protection is also good business, another sort of business person sees consumer protection as a hindrance to their freedom to do business as they see fit. I'll let you fill in the adjective for that sort of business person.

CONSUMER TIP #1: Hire a licensed landscape contractor.
All licensed landscapers are required to put their LCB number on their trucks. You can look for that when they drive up to give you a bid. You can also do an online license search, at the LCB website,, where you can find their current license status and whether they have any landscape violations from the past on their record.

CONSUMER TIP #2: Find a landscaper early.
Many landscape contractors who have been around a decade or more are often booked for the season (March - September) by April. Perhaps, if your job is small, they may be able to fit you in on short notice between two larger jobs but don't count on it. Best not to wait for the first sunny day of spring.

CONSUMER TIP #3: Get it in writing.
Why do you think they call contractors "contractors"? Answer: Because they should give you a contract spelling out what they will do, when they will do it, if there is a guarantee, and what are the terms of payment. Landscape contractors are not required to give you a contract (sometimes called a proposal) if the job amount is less than $2000. When I was a contractor, I gave written proposals on everything I did, except time and material jobs such as irrigation repair. A contract is a communications tool where both parties can see what is expected of them. Without it in writing, expectations are hazy and unclear expectations lead to client - contractor misunderstanding.

CONSUMER TIP #4: If you want to find a serious contractor, then prepare to be a serious client.
I've been there myself - a tire kicker. "Wouldn't it be interesting to find out how much this would cost or that cost?" Busy contractors (particularly during the season) don't have time to come out to your home to educate you about landscaping. Most will try to "qualify" you over the phone. Qualification means determining if you are a serious customer, and, by serious, I mean someone who has decided that they want a particular project done, but they want to make sure they have the right company at the right price to do it. There's nothing wrong with tire kicking. It's just more courteous to make that known up front. The contractor may be able to answer some general questions over the phone without taking the time and expense of answering them to your face.

CONSUMER TIP #5: It's a dance.
I've always considered the contractor-client relationship, particularly a new client, like a waltz or polka between two people that have never danced together. There's a certain amount of wondering - will they move this way, will they move that way, will they step on my foot? Every dance has two partners, so while you, the customer, are sizing up the contractor, they are sizing you up, too. If I want to waltz and the client wants to polka maybe that's the time to walk away before the dance card is punched. But, if we both want to do the same dance, and it's just a matter of adjusting to each other's rhythm, that's part of the dance and the business.

CONSUMER TIP #6: Beware of parcelled work:
I've scratched my head trying to come up with a better term for this, but it's when a contractor does some of the things or buys some of the materials on a project and you take care of the rest. For example, the client wants to buy the flagstone for a patio themselves to save money and wants the contractor to just install it. Or conversely, the contractor wants the client to get the permit for the irrigation backflow and then they will put in the system.

My experience with parcelled work is that both parties end up being unsatisfied. In the later years of my business, I developed the policy of I do it or get it all or I don't do anything. If you can find a contractor, that'll do parcelled work, great. Just be prepared to spend time to coordinate and communicate with them. You're dancing the minuet now and that's a lot harder. If the contractor is suggesting parcelling out some of the job to the client, I would avoid them.

Well, I could on and on with other tips, but that's enough to get you going. Good luck. There are some excellent landscapers out there, I hope you find one.

Pssst. . . . so here's the secret landscaper handshake. Landscaper Illuminati HandshakeLandscaper Illuminati Handshake

Landscaper Illuminati meeting - undisclosed warehouse, Swan Island, PortlandLandscaper Illuminati meeting - undisclosed warehouse, Swan Island, Portland


Feb. 16, 2017: No, that's not the title of a horror film, but it could be the title of an inspirational "Rockyesque" documentary of a once major tree that has vanished, for all practical purposes, but may have hope of beating the odds and returning. That tree is the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), not to be confused with the Chinese Chestnut or the Spanish chestnut.

Chestnut grove - pre-blightChestnut grove - pre-blightThe American chestnut (hereafter just referred to as "chestnut" to save me extra typing) was never part of the Pacific Northwest forests but was one of the dominant hardwood trees of the Appalachian mountains. There were billions (some estimate 4 billion) of them growing, some up to 120 foot heights and 8 feet or more in diameter. The mast crop of chestnuts produced were a major food source for animals and humans. Its wood was rot resistant and light weight. It was often used for furniture and you can tell a true vintage piece of furniture if you can identify chestnut as its material.

The chestnut is now classifed "functionally extinct" by the USDA. That means you cannot find a live chestnut tree anywhere (except a small handful I'll tell you about later), but you can find chestnut shrubs. So how did it go from being the dominant tree of the Appalachians to a rare to find shrub? Answer: the chestnut blight.

Somewhere around 1904, give or take a couple of years, a load of chestnut logs from Asia came into the States carrying a fungus, the chestnut blight. The Chinese chestnut is resistant to chestnut blight, developed through eons of evolutionary battle between the fungus and the tree back in Asia. Our chestnut though did not have that resistance and in the space of 40-50 years the American chestnut as a tree disappeared.

I used to be a forestry contractor in the 80's based in western North Carolina. Most of my contracts were in the southern Appalachians. What was amazing to me is I could still see in the woods these huge stumps of the chestnut that were still alive. The roots, which are not killed by the fungus, still sent up shoots. They would grow to about as about as big around as my arm and then the blight would kill them and then more shoots would arise. The chestnut would not die, even 40-50 years after the trunk was gone!

The fungus attacks the cambium, the small ring of growth tissue inside the bark, which in turn kills the Blight cankersBlight cankersbark and eventually girdles the tree which kills it. There is no preventative nor post-infection treatment to stop it. It was a killer and it couldn't be stopped. Less than a handful of isolated pockets of chestnut tree have been discovered. One pocket , found in 2006, on the Franklin Roosevelt's Little White House estate at Warm Springs caused a flurry of excitement as to whether these trees might have genes resistant to the blight or were they just isolated.

The major effort to bring the chestnut back from the dead has been focused on hybridizing it by crossing the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut, which is resistant. This crossbreeding has been taking place since the 1930's with marginal success by the USDA. In 1983, several botanists and geneticists set up the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF)to try a different type of crossbreeding called backcrossing, where a Chinese and American chestnut are crossed and then their offspring are crossed back to the American chestnut for several generations in a row. It's slow work but has finally produced a resistant chestnut that is 15/16th's American chestnut and 1/16 Chinese chestnut. If there was AKC registration for trees it wouldn't make it but it's close.

The latest greatest news is that a genetically engineered chestnut has been developed. I can see you're thinking now, "OMG a Frankenchestnut!" But hear this out. The chestnut contains 40,000 genes. Geneticists have discovered one gene from the wheat plant that produces an enzyme which detoxifies the blight fungus. Gene spliced trees are 99.999% original American chestnut. and if you're still leery, remember that genetic engineering is happening all the time in nature. It's called evolution and it results in gene mutation (different genes) often much more profound than 1 gene out of 40,000. Hybridization leads to more gene manipulation with less control than genetic engineering

Not only are GMO chestnuts so close to being the original in genetic makeup but before these trees are even made available to the public they must stand the scrutiny of the USDA, EPA and FDA approval processes. This will be the first tree approved for genetic manipulation. When you consider all the other huge threats we have to our rural and urban forest such as Dutch Elm disease, Asian longhorned beetle, oak wilt disease, pine beetle and on and on, maybe this is a ray of hope. In a new world where biological threats can't be contained by distances it's time for a new approach to saving the old.

Several thousand hybrid trees have been replanted in the wild, but that's a long way from 4 billion. I hope to live to see Frankenchestnut emerge from the lab to the marketplace . I'll be the first to toddle out and plant one.


Dec 19, 2016: I've just finished a fascinating book, called "The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate" written by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester. He takes some of the latest scientific research on plant communication and delivers it in a very understandable and easily readable fashion. One of the areas of research that was new to me and utterly mindboggling was that plants (or at least some of them) have to ability to taste. And that their taste palettes may be able to discern between the "saliva" of the different insect herbivores that are eating them.

It's been know for a couple of decades that plants have a very complex defense communication system. We know that some trees, such as acacia, will emit a phytochemical (plant chemical) into the air that warns other acacias that there are predators about feeding on their leaves. Other acacias then have time to prepared toxic, bitter substances in their leaves that deter feeding. One of the biggest herbivore threats to acacia in Africa is the giraffe and in the eons old battle between predator and prey, the giraffe has learned after feeding on one acacia to either move upwind of their last target or at least 100 meters away. The defense aroma can't tip off those unsuspecting acacias.

What's more recent is that botanists, or more specifically chemical ecologists, believe that some plants may be able to identify who is attacking them. There are two possible ways they may do that. By recognizing the saliva of the herbivorous insect or by recognizing the vibration patterns of the leaf munching of that insect. Why does a plant care what's feeding on it? This is what is truly evolutionary genius.

The acacia I mentioned above doesn't distinguish between whether it's a giraffe or whether it's a caterpillar. It's reaction and those of its buddies close enough to "smell" is to produce bitter toxins in their leaves. That requires a fair bit of energy to do on the part of the plant. What if a plant could instead enlist others to protect it? Maybe other insects that will feed on the insects that are feeding on them?

That's what some elms and pines . . . and brussel sprouts do. They are able to detect the species that isSawfly parasitic waspSawfly parasitic wasp feeding on them and then secrete a fragrance that attracts a tiny parasitic wasp that then attacks the attackers. The parasite - host relationship is very species specific, so the leaves must produce a very specific fragrance that only attracts the specific parasitic wasp for that attacker. If another species attacks then it has got to produce a different fragrance to attract a different beneficial parasite or predator. The advantage is that the plant is not taking up a lot its time and energy building up defensive chemicals in it's leaves. The disadvantage is that there are a limited number of fragrance options. Over evolutionary time the fragrance palette develop to the most commonly occurring attacking species. Get a new species in the area or environmental pressures cause a minor pest to become a major pest and there's no alarm fragrance for it.

Again, for every plant defense strategy its predators try to develop a counter strategy and it's been found that some species of caterpillars secrete a enzyme inhibitor when feeding that masks the true nature of its saliva. Copenhagen for insects.

For more detailed information, I highly recommend ( and I absolutely love the title of this article!) '"The Silent Scream of the Lima Bean" from the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology. Google it.
As with all good research the attempts to unravel mysteries lead to the exhumation of many more. For instance, if plants can taste the saliva of different predators does that mean they have a memory? Don't ask me. To quote the Great Bard, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

And hey, the next time your kid turns up their nose when you serve them brussel sprouts . . . there might just be a perfectly good phytochemical reason.

F & P