Cherry Ulster




By James Sagmiller

There are three types of cherries grown in home gardens and commercial orchards in Montana.  Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) are grown in Montana’s mildest climates (USDA Climate Zone 5; hardy to about -20 degrees F.) and do well around Flathead Lake.  Tart Cherries (Prunus cerasus) are hardier trees (USDA Climate Zone 4, to about -30 degrees F.) and are grown over much of the state, though are not really hardy enough for parts of Montana in USDA Climate Zone 3.  Canadian bush cherries are a new kind of bush cherry with tart-sweet fruit made from crosses of tart cherries and Mongolian bush cherries (Prunus fruticosa).  These are hardy to -40 degrees F.  Sweet cherries grow to 30 or 40 feet tall on standard rootstocks, though are usually pruned to be shorter for easier picking.  Tart cherries grow 18 to 20 feet tall and Canadian Bush cherries 6 to 8 feet tall.   Most cherry trees live and produce for about 35 years. 


Cherries prefer sandy or sandy loam soils; with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 (6.2-6.8 is ideal).  Clay soils would need to be significantly lightened with gypsum and organic matter and still might be too heavy.  If soil is too heavy the trees can be prone to diseases, such as Phytophthera.  Siting of a cherry orchard is important, especially for sweet cherries.  A sloping site is best, because cold air is heavier than warm air and can drain away from the trees when in bloom.  Better air circulation also helps prevent foliage diseases, such as powdery mildew, and fruit diseases such as brown rot.  In winter, a sloping site will be slightly warmer than low spots and this might protect bark from freezing and thawing.  On a site sloping to the south or southwest, bark is especially susceptible to winter damage, which can lead to bacterial canker.  All tree trunks should be painted with N.O.P. approved whitewash (no latex paint for organic growers).  Here in Montana we do not have to worry about the number of chilling hours, because of our long cold season.  Our relatively cool summers, lower summer humidity, and drier conditions around harvest time are all benefits to growing top quality cherries.


Cherries have been grown grafted onto rootstocks since ancient Greek and Roman times.  The oldest rootstock is ‘Mazzard’, which dates to Roman times, is still used, and makes a 15 to 20 foot tree with high yields.  ‘Mahaleb’ rootstock is slightly dwarfing and was first used in the 1700s in France.  It is still used today.  The ‘Gisela’ series of rootstocks, developed in Europe, have not proved reliable in the Western U.S., except perhaps on the Pacific coast.  Some of the ‘Gisela’ rootstocks are very dwarfing, creating a tree that only grows 8 to 10 feet tall.  These very dwarf trees need more consistent irrigation than standard types and staking because of heavy yields.  The rootstocks are patented also, so a large scale grower cannot produce them legally without paying expensive royalties.  ‘Colt’ and ‘Performer’ rootstocks grow trees about 70% and 80-100% the size of ‘Mazzard’, respectively.  These two have proven moderately resistant to bacterial canker and are somewhat tolerant of heavier soils.  ‘Colt’ is resistant to Phytophthera, moderately resistant to viruses, but is moderately susceptible to Armillaria.  Spacing for trees on ‘Mazzard’, ‘Mahaleb’, should be 15 to 20 feet, slightly less for ‘Performer’ and ‘Colt’.  Very dwarf trees on ‘Gisela 3’ and ‘Gisela 5’ could be planted 9 to 12 feet apart. 



There are many sweet cherry varieties available.  When choosing from those available, keep in mind that most sweet cherries require another named variety for pollination.  Some kinds are self-fruitful, but most require another pollinizer, while others cannot be pollinated by certain specific varieties.   I will list popular cherry varieties below with their characteristics and pollinizers:

‘Bing’ is an older variety with large, flavorful fruit.  The cherries crack easily if watered too much when nearly ripe, the tree is not quite as winter hardy as others, but the fruit is among the highest in anthocynins.  ‘Bing will not pollinize ‘Kristin’ or ‘Emperor Francis’.

‘Black Tartarian’ is a robust, early-bearing variety that bears red-purple-black fruit with great flavor.  It is also a very good pollinizer.

‘Emperor Francis’ has yellow fruit with a red blush and bears early in the season.

‘Kristin’ is a very winter hardy sweet cherry with large, dark red fruit.  The tree is resistant to bacterial canker.  ‘Kristin’ will not pollinate ‘Bing’.

‘Lapins’ is self-pollinating (self-fruitful), a heavy bearer, and the tree is resistant to bacterial canker.  The fruit is large, firm, dark red and crack-resistant with a good, sweet flavor.

‘Rainier’ has large yellow cherries blushed with red.  The tree can be pollinated by ‘Bing’, ‘Van’ and ‘Black Tartarian’.

‘Royal Ann’ (‘Napoleon’) makes a large, spreading tree with yellow fruit blushed red.

‘Stella’ is a self-pollinating (self-fruitful) sweet cherry with very dark red, elongated fruit.

‘Van’ is a heavy bearer, tasty and reliable, with cherries somewhat smaller in size than ‘Bing’. 

Several tart cherry varieties are grown in Montana.  All of them are self-pollinating:

‘Montmorency’ is an heirloom variety grown primarily for pie or juice.  It is a heavy bearer. 

‘Morello’ is another heirloom tart cherry, from England.  Fruit is heart-shaped and ripens late.

‘Northstar’ is a heavy producer of tart cherries.  The tree is disease-resistant.  

The Canadian bush cherries are so new that is difficult to find them in catalogs and local garden centers. 

‘Carmine Jewel’ is one variety available now.  It is self-fruitful, with semi-tart cherries on dwarf, bushy plants.  It ripens earlier than other tart cherries and is hardy to USDA climate zone 3. 


After an orchard site is chosen, a soil test has been made, and organic amendments have been added, it is time to plant.  Spring planting is most common, but late fall (early November) is a good time also.  Amendments and techniques used need to follow organic certification requirements if certification is desired.  Dig a hole larger than the root span and add some organic compost to the bottom of the hole.  Make sure the bud union (graft) is at least three inches above the soil level.  Fill the hole with soil and water the tree well.   Paint the trunk with whitewash to protect it from freezing and thawing during winter.  Place a tree guard made from a rolled piece of ¼” hardware cloth around the trunk, extending from the soil level to at least 18”.  This will protect the bark of the tree from being stripped in winter by voles.  Stake young trees with a stake pounded 18” into the soil and extending about 18” high.  Place the stake at a 45 degrees angle next to the tree with a soft tie made from a rubber hose or cloth attached to the tree.  The stake is best placed in a direction so that prevailing winds will drive it deeper into the soil.  Do not use wire or hard twine to tie the trunk to the stake because they will damage the bark.  In growing cherries, it is important to always avoid any injury to bark, to avoid bacterial canker.  In terms of irrigation, a drip system is probably the most efficient and water thrifty.   Some seasons in Montana can be very dry and a person needs to be prepared.   Watering is usually not needed until sometime in June and watering too much or too early can promote powdery mildew. 


There are two periods in the year when you can prune cherries.  Several sources recommend spring pruning (after flowering) as a way to avoid bacterial canker.   The other time to prune is in late winter, while trees are dormant.   Always prune cherries in dry weather and sterilize tools before and after each tree.  If cutting out diseased wood, sterilize tools between each cut.  A 10% bleach or Lysol solution in water is effective; or isopropyl alcohol.  Prune cherry trees into a vase shape with a central leader.  Leave alternate, staggered branches as if you were making a tree that would be good to climb.  The aim is to give branches air circulation and light, and prune out all branches shooting straight up, except the central leader.  Seal all pruning cuts. 


In Montana the most serious pest on cherries is the western cherry fruit fly (Rhagoletis indifferens Curran).  The species is native to the Pacific Northwest and occurs only on cherry.  The public, and therefore packing houses/wholesalers, have a zero tolerance for cherry fruit fly maggots in cherries.  Packing houses check all incoming fruit for maggots; if one maggot is found in a shipment the whole truckload is refused.  Cherry fruit fly larvae are rarely found; in Washington State for example, larvae are found perhaps one to ten times a season from over 35,000 acres of cherries grown for commercial sale.  Western cherry fruit fly has only one generation per year.  Pupae overwinter in one to six inches deep in soil under cherry trees.  The first flies emerge in late May and the number of flies emerging peaks about cherry harvest time in July.  Adults feed on micro-organisms, pollen and bird droppings, aphid honeydew, and wounds on cherry fruit.  This feeding and mating period lasts about 10 days.  Females can lay 100 to 300 eggs over a period of 30 days, placing one or two eggs per fruit.  Most flies stay on the host tree, but a few may travel as much as several hundred yards to neighboring cherry orchards or isolated trees.  Eggs hatch in about eight days and the fly maggot eats the pulp of the cherry for 15 or 17days, or longer if weather is cool.  At the end of feeding period, the maggot exits the fruit and drops on the ground.  The larva burrows into the soil one to six inches deep and pupates for about 10 months, until next season.  A few pupae overwinter twice and emerge the second season. 

Most cherry fruit flies are found on home garden sweet or tart cherry trees.  This highlights the importance of controlling and preventing this pest in home gardens.  It is important to protect our Montana cherry industry.  Prevention is one way of helping control western cherry fruit fly.  If all fruit is picked from trees before flies emerge to drop on the ground, and this is undertaken at least two years in a row, the tree will be free of this pest until reintroduced.  It is best to not allow fruit to be left on isolated trees.  Beneficial nematodes have been used to control pupae, but they are only about 80-88% effective, so must be augmented with other organic controls.  Yellow sticky traps are used to monitor fly populations, but are not really successful in controlling them. 

An N.O.P. approved bacteria marketed as Spinosad is an effective control of western cherry fruit fly.  A bait known as GF-120NF contains bait for newly emerged adult flies to feed on plus Spinosad.  The bait is sprayed or squirted on the leaves after emergence (or when fruit is straw-colored) and again every ten days.  The bait is rather thick when mixed, and a sprayer must be cleaned well after use.  It is highly effective.  Another effective product is Entrust, also made with Spinosad, and it is sprayed every seven to ten days after flies emerge.   At the end of harvest, pick every single cherry and leave none on the tree or on the ground.

The plum curculio is an insect problem on cherries in the Eastern U.S.  Organic controls include: PyGanic (a pyrethrum-based product), and Surround (a crop protectant made with kaolin clay.  The American plum borer is another pest affecting tart cherries in the eastern half of the U.S.  Infestations are common on trees with mechanical damage to bark and branches.  Borer larvae have to be dug out of the bark and no organic controls are available yet. 

Spotted-winged drosophila is an invasive species of vinegar fly from Japan.   It has become established on the east and west coast and is moving inland.  It is another fly that lays eggs in the fruit that hatch into maggots.   Lure traps by Trece and Scentry available for this pest.  For organic cherry orchards, use a combination of GF-120 bait plus Entrust and/or PyGanic.   Read label directions of all products carefully because the treatment schedule can be complicated.  In organic pest control, it is sometimes required to alternate product applications. 

For pear slugs (cherry leaf skeletonizers) a forceful blast of water will wash them off trees; or diatomaceous earth is an effective control.  Aphids can be washed off tree leaves also, and controlled with insecticidal soap.  A dormant spray in winter with horticultural oil will smother aphid eggs.  Tent caterpillars can be controlled with BT (Bacillus thurigensis) a bacterium that affects caterpillars.  


Bacterial canker is by far the most important disease affecting cherries.  The bacteria Pseudomonas syringae affects cherry roots, bark, branches, twigs, leaves and fruit.  This disease can appear after any one of several stresses on trees, including: drought, frost, pruning wounds, nematodes and other diseases.  As with many other organic pest controls, prevention is very important.   Resistant rootstocks and resistant cherry varieties help.  Older trees can harbor disease, so it is best not to plant new trees among old established trees.  Avoid allowing irrigation water to hit bark, branches, or leaves.  Try not to damage bark or branches and paint trunks with whitewash to prevent freezing and thawing in winter.  Prune in summer if possible, rather than in winter, and only in dry weather.   Keep weeds down, especially grasses, as they host the bacteria.   White Dutch clover or a low growing vetch is better as a groundcover in a cherry orchard.   Test for harmful nematodes before planting.  A control most often used for bacterial canker is copper, but several strains of Pseudomonas syringae have become resistant to copper, especially in California and Washington. 

Black Knot, caused by Apiosporina morbosum is a fungal disease that shows up as knot-like structures on branches and twigs.  These should be pruned out of the cherry trees as soon as noticed.  Cut three to four inches below the knot with sterilized tools (10% bleach or Lysol in water, or isopropyl alcohol).   Sterilize tools again after each cut.  A lime-sulfur spray in the dormant season will help control black knot. 

Phytophthera root rot is very common problem for cherries on heavy poorly draining soils.  Try to plant cherries on sand or sandy loam and do not plant cherries on clay soils.  Affected trees will show loss of vigor.  The cadmium layer will be reddish-brown in color and root growth will be poor and shallow.  ‘Mahaleb’ rootstock is the most susceptible to root-rot, while ‘Mazzard’ and ‘Colt’ are somewhat resistant.   

Armillaria mellea is the organism that causes a fungal disease called oak root rot or honey rot.  It can affect cherries on any kind of soil, and is sometimes present in old roots from dead trees or shrubs.  Recently cleared land can harbor this disease.  The only known control is to avoid planting on newly cleared sites or sites known to have Armillaria. 

Brown rot (caused by Monilinia fructicola and M. laxa) can appear if weather conditions are wet, warm and humid.  Here in Montana, we historically did not have much of that type of weather, but as the climate changes, we are having more and more such days each summer.  Brown rot affects blossoms, fruit and twigs.  A first indicator of brown rot is blossom blight; if left unchecked, symptoms will reappear anytime during the period from about three weeks before harvest through harvest and storage.  Temperatures in the 70s F. with rain and higher humidity favor development of brown rot.  Keeping the orchard clean of fallen twigs, leaves and fruit helps discourage brown rot.  A sunny site or slope with good air circulation is helpful.  An open area planted with clover or vetch between the orchard and woods is helpful also.  Thinning out branches on the cherry trees in summer and during dormant season will increase air circulation as well.  Sulfur is the traditional remedy for brown rot and organic growers can use it.  The first application is best done before the first flower petals open.  Follow up with another spray 7 days later, at petal drop and a third time about 10 days later at sepal drop.  More applications might be necessary in the case of frequent and heavy rains. 

Another disease affecting cherries is botrytis blossom blight, but this is rare here in Montana and more common near coastal areas.  To prevent botrytis, keep the orchard clean, pick up all “mummy’” fruit. 

Powdery mildew, a fungus caused by Podosphaera clandestine, is occasionally seen on cherry leaves and twigs.  It is more prevalent in high heat with humidity, so more common in the eastern U.S.  Powdery mildew will cause loss of vigor and yield.  Open pruning, creating a central leader with alternate branching, discourages mildew.  Resistant varieties will help with this problem; ‘Bing’, Black Tartarian’ and ‘Rainier’ are especially susceptible to powdery mildew.  Most tart cherries are susceptible, too.  Sulfur made into a spray will also control powdery mildew, but also will a spray made with baking soda. 

Leaf spot, another fungus primarily affecting tart cherries, is caused by Blumeriella jaapii.  This fungus causes leaves to turn yellow and later, holes to form in the leaves.  It is more common in humid climates than here in Montana, but sometimes is seen.  Orchard sanitation is a good preventative.  The fungus overwinters on fallen leaves, so these should all be raked up and destroyed in fall.  Copper fungicide sprays will control this disease.  Spray at petal fall, again when dead flower petals fall off fruit (shuck fall), and again two weeks later.  Copper sprays can damage tree foliage, especially in temperatures above 80 degrees F., so should be used in cooler weather for best results.


Birds love cherries as much as we do, so measures must be taken to protect fruit.  Netting is very effective, but expensive for large-scale growers.  A combination of noise-makers and visual deterrents are used by organic cherry growers.  Stationary electronic devices are available that emit loud distress calls that scare birds away. Also available are gas cannons, bird whistles and bird-bombs.   Old CDs or metal pie plates tied among tree branches, and scare-eye balloons all are effective in frightening birds away.  Usually one or another of these deterrents works for a week or so.  Then you must use a different deterrent or rearrange them because birds get used to them. 

Deer will browse on cherry trees in winter and eat leaves and fruit.  The best way to prevent damage from deer is an eight foot fence.  Repellents have only limited effectiveness.  Gophers have become a problem in recent years and the best way to control them for an organic grower is to trap them.  Voles can be trapped also, and be sure to place hardware cloth tree guards around trees before winter.  If commercial plastic tree guards are used, remove them within two weeks after snow melts because condensation will take place between the plastic and the bark, creating conditions that promote bacteria.


Yields from each cherry tree 3 to 5 years after planting will be from 40 to 120 pounds of fruit.  Pick cherries gently when fruit is ripe.  Twist the cherry lightly and move your hand in an upward motion to separate the stem from the spur.  Be careful not to tear off the fruit spur as that is where next year’s flowers and fruit will form.  If you are harvesting for immediate home use, you can pick the cherries without stems.  Cherries are picked commercially with stems attached because they last longer after picking.  Harvest fruit every other day, for about a week, from each tree.  Keep picked fruit cool.   Cherries last for about 10 days in the refrigerator.


Ames, Guy K., 2014. Cherries: Organic Production. National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA).

Granatstein, David, Preston Andrews and Alan Groff, 2014.  Productivity, Economics, and Fruit and Soil Quality of Weed Management Systems in Commercial Organic Orchards in Washington State, USA. website, 2018.  Growing Cherry Trees Organically.

Hansen, Melissa, 2010.  Controlling Mildew in Organic Cherries.

Langer, Richard W. 1973.  Growing Cherries The Mother Earth News,  January/February 1973.

Lehnert, Richard, 2015.  Stinkbug Challenges Organic Growers.

Smith, Timothy J.,  Cherry Fruit Fly Bait Application.  Washington State University Extension.

Smith, Timothy J., Western Cherry Fruit Fly.  Washington State University Extension.

WSU Extension, 2014.  Spotted Wing Drosophila Control on Sweet Cherry. 







Peppers are one of the garden crops that must be started inside and transplanted out to the garden later, when weather has warmed.  Years ago, people grew more sweet peppers than hot, but now hot peppers are very popular here in the northern Rocky Mountain and plains region.  I will discuss some pointers on how to start and grow your plants organically and I will include some information on the many varieties available today. 

Peppers (Capsicum annuum) prefer warm days and nights to grow and produce well.  In our mountainous area, with a short growing season and cool nights, peppers benefit from protection from cold early and late in the season.  So, we time our planting for after the last frost (usually around May 15 here at 3,000 feet altitude) and find it beneficial to cover our plants for the night until temperatures warm.  Row covers, hot caps, even cardboard boxes will collect heat from the soil and release it during the night.  The warm conditions promote faster growth.  Organically enriched soil and the use of organic fertilizers will also speed up growth. 

Hot peppers take longer to germinate than sweet peppers.  Seeds of both types will germinate between 60-95 degrees, but 80-85 degrees is ideal.  The germ time for sweet peppers is 7-14 days; for hot peppers, 14-28 days.  Here, we usually start our plants in February.  A mix of peat, vermiculite and perlite makes a great seed starting mix, as it is sterile (no soil-borne diseases).  Peat pots are great for starting seeds as they can be planted right into the ground when plants are large enough.  A solid flat with a dome cover will keep the seeds moist until they sprout.  Pepper seeds do not need light to germinate, but lights over the plants will promote sturdy growth and prevent spindly, “leggy” growth.  If you do not have lights, put the plants in a warm spot in a south window as soon as they sprout. 

Nights should be 55 degrees or above before planting out into the garden.  (If you are at a high elevation, use row covers.)  Make sure to harden plants off before planting, by putting them outside for a few hours at a time (in shade).  Gradually give the plants more time outside and brighter light for about a week of time.  When you are sure weather has stabilized, plant them out.  If they are in peat pots, make sure the peat pots are very damp and plant the peppers deeper, with about 2 inches of soil over the pots, so they will degrade.   If not covered, peat pots tend to dry out and a plant cannot pierce the pot with its roots.  Protect your plants from cutworms with jugs or cans or paper rings.  Water regularly, keeping them moist, not wet.  Water early in the day only; allowing leaves to dry early in the day.  Watch for aphids, their worst pest.  A preventative spray of Garlic Barrier will deter aphids.  Follow directions and use garlic sprays very early in the day, so as to not interfere with the activities of bees and other beneficial insects.  You will only need to spray garlic three times in a whole season.  A foliar spray of liquid organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest Fish fertilizer will greatly increase the size and productivity of your plants.  This type of fertilizer is very low in salts, an important feature.  Worm castings will increase nitrogen levels in your soil and silica will strengthen stems. 

Insulating row covers (protection blankets) are very useful to extend our season for about 3-4 weeks.  These are more effective at lower temperatures than using poly film.   Mulch your peppers after soil is warm— June or early July, with red plastic or 2” organic straw.  Trim off all flowers until June 22, to enable plants to produce more heavily; otherwise, plants put all their energy into ripening an early crop and seasonal production is much lower. 

Here in the Mission Valley we put our peppers out about May 21-June 1 as weather permits.  Plant peppers about 14” apart.  Plant in full sun.  The growing temperature range for peppers is 55–85 degrees, with 75-80 being ideal.  Optimum soil pH is 5.5-7.0.  Peppers like even steady moisture—not wet soil conditions.  Try to practice regular, even watering; early in the day.

Pests of peppers include: gophers; leafhoppers; cutworms, leaf miners, hornworms, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, pepper weevils, mites, nematodes and aphids.  Diseases include: early blight, southern blight, anthracnose, bacterial spot and verticillium wilt. 

Harvest peppers when full size, 4-5 weeks from pollination + 4-5 weeks to ripen (about 9-10 weeks).  If the summer is cool, more time will be needed.  Harvest by cutting the fruit from the plant.  Check/pick every 3 days.  The first peppers should be ready about September 1 or earlier.  After harvesting keep cool, above 55 degrees, in high humidity and out of the sun.  Harvested fruit last about 7 days when stored out of the sun. 

Varieties (all open-pollinated, so seed can be saved each season):

‘King of the North’ heirloom sweet pepper (57 days to green, 65 days to red).   An early variety, grown for seed in the Mission Valley.  Fruit are 3-4” and production is good in our cool climate.

‘California Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (65 days to green, 75 days to red).  Another popular variety here, maturing a little later than ‘King of the North’, but more productive with larger fruit. 

‘Golden Cal. Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (60 days to green, 75 days to golden yellow).  A good, sweet variety for cool seasons, with large, 4” fruit. 

‘Purple Beauty’ sweet pepper (55 days to purple, 75 days to red).  A very productive, early variety with 3-4” fruit.

‘Chocolate Bell’ sweet pepper (70 days to green, 75 days to brown).  An interesting, early pepper that matures well and is grown for seed here in the Mission Valley. 

‘Jimmy Nardello’ heirloom sweet pepper (75 days to red).  A popular, 6-9” long, thin-skinned sweet pepper great for frying or drying.

‘Anaheim’ heirloom mildly-hot pepper (80 days to red).  The best pepper for stuffing.  An 8 inch long, thick-walled pepper that can be roasted, fresh dried, canned or stuffed and baked. 

‘Tesuque Chili’, Estacano Chili’, ‘San Felipe Chili’ heirloom chili peppers (about 70 days to red).  These three chili peppers are from Native American Pueblos in the Southwest.  They all are thin-walled, and excellent for drying.  They are excellent to use dried, ground up and added to dishes.  

‘Early Jalapeno’ heirloom hot pepper (60 days ).  The most popular hot pepper, used fresh and pickled.

‘Cayenne Long Slim’ heirloom hot pepper (70 days to red).  This pepper grows to about 6 or 7 inches long, is quite hot, and dries well.  Plants are very productive and early. 

‘Viet Hot Chili’ (95 days to red).  A very hot pepper grown locally (Mission Valley, Montana) for seed.  Plants must be started earlier than other peppers as they sprout slowly and mature slowly.   The fruit dry well.

‘Habanero’ heirloom chili pepper (95 days to red).   One of the hottest peppers available, it requires a long season, but is tops for flavor. 





Hidatsa squash


Fall started all of a sudden this year!  Now is the time to bring in any remaining vegetables to ripen, or cover them with a row cover designed to take frosts into the mid-20s.  Plant bulbs, wildflower mixes and hardy annuals.  Harvest apples and pears, and sow seeds of hardy trees and shrubs. 

With row covers and cold frames as protection crops can still be harvested into November.  Ventilate plants in frames and give air and water freely.  When it is cold, cover with mats or straw and do not let the sun shine on an open frame full of frozen plants.   

Finish digging potatoes early in the month in case we get a heavy frost. 

Harvest Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, spinach and herbs.  Harvest and store cabbages late in the month: turn them upside down to dry, take off extra leaves and place them in a bin of sand in a cellar.  Or, place the cabbages in a trench filled with sand, cover them with more sand and place a water-proof cover (open at both ends) over the trench to keep them dry.  Close the ends with straw when frosty.  Thin spinach and lettuce planted last month.  If you have protected your pepper plants from frosts and heavy frost is on the way, pull up the plants and hang them upside down to ripen fruits.  Harvest ripe squash and pumpkins, leaving a one to one and a half inch stem.  Dig, divide and transplant garlic and shallots.  Hang onions to dry in an airy cool place.  Cut asparagus and perennial herbs back before winter.  Carrots may be left in the ground and covered with two feet of straw, leaves or peat moss to pick as needed most of the winter.   To prevent voles, cover the carrot bed with hardware cloth before you place the straw. 

Plant bulbs this month, finishing by November 15; give a top dressing of bone meal to the previous season’s bulbs beds.  Divide and replant peonies and plant wildflower seed. 

Divide perennials late in the month, after cool weather begins, into November.  Sow seeds of late-blooming perennials (to sprout in spring).  Trim lavenders and other shrubby herbs to a few inches and give them a light dressing of manure. 

If not already done, dig tuberoses, dahlias, amaryllis, gladioli and other tender bulbs.  Spread them out to dry in a warm room, clean off hair roots and decaying foliage and pack them up in dry boxes of sawdust.  Keep your bulbs in a cool, dark, dry, frost-free location.  Weed established bulb beds and spread bone meal as a top dressing. 

Harvest apples and pears for storage when the trees are dry.   To test for ripeness gently twist fruit gently one way or the other.  If it comes off easily it is ready to pick.  Place harvested fruit in heaps in a shed to dry further for 10 to 14 days.  Examine each fruit for bruises, which will cause rot in storage.  Wipe each one dry, wrap in paper and store in barrels; or, wipe dry and place in dry sand in the barrels.  Keep in a cool, dry cellar away from frost. 

Transplant trees, shrubs and fruit trees late in month. 

Watch for leafhoppers on roses and spray before severe frosts occur to get last generation before winter.  To protect tender roses over the winter, mound each plant with soil about 6 inches deep and place a layer of evergreen branches over that.  In the spring the soil can be removed gradually, about an inch at a time.  In the spring, uncover the plants gradually.  Use a gentle jet of water from a hose once a week or so, finishing about May 20.   If a heavy late frost threatens, place the evergreens over the crown of the plant again, removing them when weather warms. 






We have had a very hot summer this year so watch for spider mites on your garden plants, especially those in hot, dry locations.   If you have kept your house plants outside, inspect them carefully before you bring them into the house.  Check for any sign of insects or diseases and if you find any, treat with organic pest controls.  Watch for slugs and cultivate to expose and destroy grasshopper eggs.  Also, watch for corn earworms. 

Another important pest in Western Montana gardens are voles.  Wrap your fruit trees for winter with plastic tree guards so that these rodents will not strip the bark.  An effective method to protect the root ball of trees from being dug into and eaten, is to plant them using wire baskets over the roots.  Voles cannot chew through hardware cloth or into the new vole wire cages.  Caging is a safe-for-the–planet method that works for fruit trees, roses, shrubs, perennials and bulbs.  Be sure to cover the surface of the ground inside the basket edge so rodents cannot burrow down from the top.

Harvest peas, beans and cucumbers consistently in September to keep them producing.   Late in the month remove blossoms from eggplant, peppers, melons and squash in order to direct energy into to ripening remaining fruits.  Cover sunflowers from birds and pinch tomato tips.  Cultivate or hoe around cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips and celery.  Keep late maturing cauliflower and broccoli well-watered.  Plant garlic and shallots and over-wintering onion sets.  You can still direct seed a few plants for fall/winter greens: arugula, lettuce, radishes, cress, corn salad, chervil and kale. 

If you plan to grow crops under tunnels or in a cold greenhouse over the winter, plant seed (early in the month) of crops for winter use: chervil, kale, spinach, lettuce, radishes, corn salad, and winter cress.  Later in the month, from the 20th to the first week of October, plant seeds of cabbage, cauliflower and other brassicas for transplanting out into tunnels in OctoberHave winter covers ready by October 1. 

September is a good time to make new beds for growing mushrooms.  Well-rotted horse manure is excellent. 

Gather ripe seeds of any vegetables (or flowers) you want to save seed from.

Prepare beds for planting bulbs.  Sow seeds of bulbous flowers collected in summer.  Transplant peonies and lilies and dig dahlias after killing frost.  Transplant pinks and carnations (with root ball intact) late in the month and plant out any other perennials and biennials where they are to bloom.  Most perennials can be divided now and replanted where they are to bloom. 

Gather ripe fruit from apples and pears.  Remove diseased fruits and “mummies”, rake up leaves under fruit trees and destroy them (to prevent apple scab).  Prepare equipment to make cider. Prepare beds for planting fruit trees, using well-rotted manure, digging down 18 inches.  Keep strawberries free of weeds and the soil moist.  If you plan to force strawberries in winter, now is the time to take them up and pot them.  Cut a root ball out with a knife, trim off dead leaves and runners and pot into 7 or 8 inch pots.  Place them in shade and water well.  Then plunge the pots in earth up to the rim.  Take them up and into frames or greenhouse before cold weather. 

Protect ripening grapes from birds with netting or gauze; keep weeds away from plants.  If wasps are a problem, hang containers of sugar water to catch them. 

Trim branches of evergreens and walnut trees, so wounds will heal before winter.  Keep weeds cleaned out from nursery beds and plantings of young trees.  Lay down grass turf this month or plant lawn seed. 

September is an excellent time to apply an organic from of potash to your garden plants to strengthen stems and roots in order to ripen them before winter.  Kelp meal can be applied as a surface dressing and watered in or you can do a foliar spray of seaweed twice during the month of September.  Do not apply nitrogen this month as it forces growth that will surely be winter killed.





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By James Sagmiller

The benefits of gardening organically are many.  First, food grown without dangerous pesticides and herbicides is safe for us and our children to eat.  Second, using organic methods protects our natural environment: soils are healthy, waters are protected from dangerous runoff, insects, birds, and water creatures are all unharmed by dangerous chemicals.  With organic methods, your soil becomes alive with organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, which, through a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, increase a plant’s ability to uptake moisture and nutrients.  These fungi, along with beneficial soil bacteria, create an ideal, sustainable environment for crops—exactly the opposite of degraded soils exhausted through repeated use of chemical fertilizers. 

At first, planning to “go organic” might seem difficult, but I assure you the rewards are worth the time taken to learn easy ways of gardening organically.  Siting, fencing, and soil building are first steps.  Find a location for your garden that receives full sun, preferably one with wind protection.  If a site is windy, you can put lattice or privacy webbing on your fence to slow down the blast.  Shelter belt plantings of native trees and shrubs are excellent too.  Because deer are so prevalent nowadays, an 8-foot high fence is the best way to shield your garden.  Other methods are less effective.  I made my fence out of game fencing and 10-foot metal posts.  A 6-foot fence that hides what is on the other side will work also; if deer cannot see what is on the other side, they will not leap over.  Deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough! 

A soil test is very helpful before you begin your garden spot.  You can immediately see what nutrients you have in your soil and which ones you need to add more of.  It is also good to know the analysis of purchased soil amendments (marked with the letters N-P-K on fertilizer labels).   For high nitrogen contents (N on the label) choose blood meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, and composted manure.  Amendments with high phosphorous (P on the label) include fish bone meal and rock phosphate.  Potash (K on the label) is abundant in kelp meal, alfalfa meal and wood ashes.  Keep in mind wood ashes and bone meal become alkaline (higher pH) as they decompose, and cottonseed meal becomes more acidic (lower pH).  It is helpful to have a test kit and know your soil’s pH and NPK content.  Nitrogen promotes good green growth, phosphorous promotes flowering and fruiting, and potash encourages root growth and ripening of fruits and seeds.

To kill out grass and weeds for a new garden spot, use something safe that will shade the ground.  Some options are: landscape fabric with weights on it, newspaper covered with moist, heavy organic straw, or black plastic weighted down.  It takes a few weeks to kill out most plant material, but some perennial weeds will remain and seeds will sprout again.  If you are planning well ahead, you can immediately plant a soil-building cover crop to shade the soil until you plant vegetables.  If you need to start right away, till the soil, add organic amendments, plant your seeds and transplants, then mulch. 

When you plant seeds, choose organically certified seed if possible, especially for food plants.  Heirloom seed varieties, which are all open-pollinated, are excellent for organic gardening, because being generations-old, they are well-adapted to climates where they have been grown for a long time.  Heirlooms often ripen in succession rather than all at once, frequently are more nutritious, have exceptional taste, and seed can be saved from them to plant next year.  Another plus is that many heirloom varieties were developed to last well in storage—a valuable trait for local sustainability and for gardeners who want to be self-sufficient.

Mulching your garden is important to conserve moisture and provide for living soil organisms.  Landscape fabric, organic straw, compost, or composted grass clippings work well.  (Fresh grass clippings or other fresh greens will draw nitrogen out of the soil rather than add nitrogen.) 

Be sure to include a home for pollinators in or around your garden.  Native wildflowers are best; they will attract and foster native species of bees and other insects.  Another effective tactic is to release ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantises and other pest-eating bugs in your garden at proper times.  It is helpful to provide bird, bat houses and Mason bee houses.

Most gardeners new to organic gardening have anxiety about controlling pests and diseases.  Healthy, thriving plants, combined with preventative methods are the most effective ways to begin.  A diversity of crops will help confuse damaging insects (the scent of marigolds, for example confuses some pests).  Crop-rotation will prevent a host of pest and disease problems.  Plan your vegetable layout so that the same kind of plant is not grown in the same spot for at least 4 years.  Collars made from toilet paper rolls or plastic cups will deter cut worms.  Netting will prevent birds from eating strawberries.  Light insect fabric on row covers will protect all cole crops from cabbage loopers; and straw mulch around tomatoes will make a home for beetles, which will eat aphids off the tomatoes at night.  Garlic spray over your vegetables will confuse most damaging pests and prevent infestations if timed at monthly intervals.  Safe pesticides and fungicides, such as BT, horticultural oil, neem oil, insecticidal soap, pyrethrum, and diatomaceous earth are each effective for certain listed pests.  Always follow directions and precautions to the letter with any pesticides or herbicides. 

Take advantage of the latest technologies to assist your organic garden.  A few of these include: season-extending high or low tunnels, solar-powered heating and cooling, and frost-protection fabrics.  Using tunnels and row covers can improve yields significantly because you get a month to 6 weeks longer season of growing and harvesting!  Automatic solar vents for cold frames, greenhouses and high tunnels will save you labor and worry—especially in our volatile climate, with its ups and downs in temperature, alternating clouds and sunshine, and sudden winds that occur in a typical Montana spring.  Solar powered fans will kick on automatically when the temperature gets too high in a tunnel or greenhouse, and will not contribute to the overabundance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  I wish you the best of luck and success in your organic gardening!




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Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountain region, a region of varied climates.  The kind of tomatoes most frequently grown in our gardens are botanically classified as Lycopersicon esculentum.   Tomatoes are easy to grow in Western Montana if given the right conditions in the garden.  The site should be sunny and protected from wind, but with some airflow.  If grown in too close or crowded conditions tomatoes can succumb to disease.  Fortunately, in our area, the air is usually pretty dry, meaning humidity is usually low (when the sun is out).  Good soil is important.  I amend my existing soil with manure, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal or wood ashes and greensand.  A good, dark compost will enrich your soil, feed the tomatoes and retain moisture.  If you prepare your soil well, as organic gardeners do, you will not have to feed them at all the rest of the season.  Tomatoes prefer even moisture; if given too little water they will produce fewer and smaller fruit.  If given too much water all at once, especially when the soil has dried out, the fruit often crack and split.  An even, slow watering is best, so the moisture goes deep into the soil.  Leaf roll, blossom-end rot and cracked fruit can be prevented by careful, even watering—aim for moist soil always, not wet or dry.

Tomatoes are naturally a vining plant, though they have been selected over the centuries to be shorter and bushier.  This is especially true of more recent seed strains.  Many of the oldest heirloom tomatoes are tall plants that require support in the form of a tomato cage or wooden frame, or a trellis.  One example of a tall heirloom tomato is ‘Purple Cherokee’, which grows over six feet tall!  It is important to keep the fruit of the ground and leave space around your plants.  This will help prevent disease.  It is best to water tomatoes in the morning and avoid wetting foliage in the evening.  This will reduce or prevent late blight (spots on leaves and fruit).  Other diseases include: powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt.   If you suspect disease, your county extension agent or other specialist can help you diagnose these problems and recommend remedies.  This is important in our region, to protect our potato industry.  Potatoes are related to tomatoes and subject to many of the same diseases.  Sulfur and copper fungicides are two available OMRI listed, certified organic disease controls.

Deer are a primary pest in our gardens; gophers and voles are quite damaging, too.  A tall (seven foot) fence helps prevent deer, and hardware cloth under a raised bed is a good way to prevent gophers and voles.

One more issue to watch is proper pollination of your tomatoes.  Fruit will not set well if daily high temperatures do not reach 55 degrees; conversely, fruit will not set if temperatures are over 100 degrees.  Historically, we have had troubles setting fruit with our cold days and nights, but nowadays with warming temperatures, the daily high temperatures might become an issue.

Here is a list of some wonderful open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes that do not have too late a season for Western Montana:

‘Glacier’ (55 days) is a dwarf, bushy variety with potato-like leaves.  The fruit are 2” to 3” and red to orange.  ‘Glacier’ produces well in cool climates and has excellent flavor for an early tomato.  No pruning or staking is needed for this variety.

‘Bison’ (65 days) was developed in North Dakota in 1937.  It is another dwarf variety that sets 3” deep red tomatoes even in cool weather.  ‘Bison’ can produce as much as 40 pounds of tomatoes from one plant.  This variety requires no staking or pruning.

‘Persimmon’ is an orange, persimmon-colored tomato that originated in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.  It is rare today and reasonably early, (75 to 80 days).  The flavor is very good, low-acid; the fruit reaches about one pound.  This is a great tomato for salsa!

‘Large Red’ (80 days) is one of the oldest and rarest tomatoes.  It originated in Massachusetts, in the 1820s, and was grown by the Shakers.  Pioneers brought is west on the Oregon Trail.  It is a tall plant with convoluted red fruit resembling the pumpkin that became Cinderella’s coach.  12 oz. fruit is common, as it is a beefsteak-type.  ‘Large Red’ has a sweet and rich flavor.

‘White Shah’ (80 days) is an heirloom from the 1880s; a very mild, flavorful, white tomato.  The fruit are quite large, 8-12 ounces, and the plants have potato-like leaves.  ‘White Shah’ was the healthiest tomato I grew last year, and one of the best for flavor.

‘Pink Brandywine’ (80 days) is another tall plant, potato-leaved, with delicious, pink fruit.  It is the most popular heirloom for flavor, though the plants are more disease-prone than most tomatoes.  Good culture should prevent or minimize these problems.  ‘Pink Brandywine’ is one of the best for tomato sauce.

‘Cherokee Purple’ (80 days) originated with the Cherokee people and was brought west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  The plant is very tall—six to seven feet!  Staking and/or caging is necessary.  The fruit are large, flavor is among the very best, and fruit sets fairly early.  Prepare your soil well, as this variety is not usually as productive as some.


April Gardening Calendar


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April is another busy month for gardeners; usually a month characterized by ups and downs in temperature.  Keep watch for frosts; protect cold frames with mats if frosts are imminent, and admit air daily as weather permits.  Finish pruning fruit trees if not done, plant grapes; fertilize and prune blackberries.  Check your fruit trees and roses for pests as soon as they bud and leaf out and set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.  Weed and amend all your beds now while it is cool and moist.

Finish planting fruit trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials.  This month is a good time to direct sow (where they are to flower)seeds of several flowers: sweet alyssum, cornflowers, carnations, pinks, poppies, stocks, rose campion, Lychnis, columbines, valerian, honesty, foxglove, snapdragons, mignonette, larkspur, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and four-o’clocks.  Perennials still may be divided if weather has not become too warm.  Violets can be divided after blooming and cuttings taken of pansies.  Make cuttings of chrysanthemums, gauras, Helianthus, lupines, Lychnis, Liatris, knautias, saponarias, scutellarias and veronicas.  Dahlias and tigridias may be started inside in cold climates and planted out later after frosts are over, or planted outside if the soil temperature is above 60 degrees F.

Several vegetables can be direct sown if weather permits and it is not too cold: beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, pasley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard.  Sunflowers and tomatillos can be sown two weeks before the last expected frost.

Corn may be sown after April 15th in cool maritime northwest climates, or a week or two later in the inland and mountain areas.  Usually corn is sown about 10 days to two weeks before the last frost.  Native Americans of the Hidatsa tribe living in the Dakotas planted sunflowers first, then corn, and after frosts followed with beans and finally, squash.  Sunflowers were grown by themselves in a field, but corn, beans and squash were grown together; with corn in hills of 6-8 and beans and squash vining through.

Vegetables started last month indoors may be planted out this month: the brassicas, parsley, Asian greens, rhubarb and tomatoes; once frosts are over.

Prune established roses before bud break and seal the cuts with water-based glue or wood glue.  This prevents drilling wasps from injuring the canes.  Fertilize organically with Epsom salts, manure or compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal and seaweed or wood ashes.

A few things maybe grafted now: grapes, hollies, pears, maples, pines and clematis.  Layers can be made of Cotoneaster, Cotinus, Hydrangea, Lavandula, Lonicera and Parthenocissus. 

Enjoy spring!

Controlling Cut Worms


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In my organic garden of heirloom plants here in Oregon, we have several pests: deer, raccoons, dogs, squirrels, rats, slugs, cabbage looper larvae and cutworms.  Cutworms have been the most consistently damaging of the group.  Typically, they sever the stems of young transplants, a preferred food of theirs.  They also eat most of the plants I grow; all vegetables, but especially plants of the Brassica, Dianthus, Primula and Viola families.  Here, they are a year-round pest, perhaps because of the mild weather of the region.  Cutworms belong to the family Noctuidae.  Note that the Latin root word here “noctu” refers to night—the time when these insects feed.  They come out about two hours after dark to feast, then disappear under the soil for the day.  Some cutworm eggs overwinter and hatch in spring, but others can hatch at any time after, as long as it is not too cold.  Evidently there is one generation per year.  The adult moths emerge in late summer and lay eggs which can hatch at varying times of the year.  Several species exist: the Army cutworm, Black cutworm, Variegated cutworm, and a new species here in Oregon, which is active year round, the Winter cutworm.  The first picture above shows a cutworm that appeared on heirloom petunia seedlings while they were on a bench in my greenhouse.  The plants had been transplanted two weeks before, so I was surprised that the cutworm was able to climb so far!  the photo was taken in May, so this was probably the variegated cutworm, which we have spring, summer and fall.  The second picture shows another cutworm on the edge of a patio planter, three feet above the ground.  The other three photos reveal damage on in-ground plants made by Winter cutworms in December, January and February.  Cutworms typically leave black droppings on your plants; the photo of the cauliflower shows this.

An organic gardener’s best first defense against cutworms is prevention.  A week before plants are to be set out, prepare your bed by cultivating heavily to dislodge and destroy any worms in the soil, then cultivate again.  When you plant your transplants, place collars around the plants to make it difficult for the worms to get to your plants.  Collars may be made of paper (milk cartons work well), plastic, metal or cardboard.  Here it rains so frequently that I choose to use plastic milk jugs or cans with the bottoms cut out of them.  After planting, spread one or more of the following sharp-edged deterrent mulches over the soil, around the plants: diatomaceous earth, eggshells, wood ashes or sharp grit.  The rough surfaces of any of these will discourage cutworms from crawling to your plants.  Another preventive method is to wait until two hours after dark, take a flashlight, search out the larvae and use the squish-bug technique for control.  Continue to cultivate around your plants to dislodge hiding larvae.  One other way to fight the battle is to attract or purchase beneficial insects to control cutworms.  Ground beetles, parasitic nematodes and tachinid flies attack cutworms.  Pollen-laden flowers, (don’t forget about native wildflowers) will help draw beneficial insects to your garden.

A next recourse for severe infestations is to use biological pest controls.  The bacteria Bacillus thuringensis kurstaki (known as BTK) made into a liquid spray is effective in controlling cutworms as long as you do not have continuous rain, as we often do here in western Oregon.  The damaged cauliflower, cabbage and primrose in the photos above show the effects of cutworms in winter, during a three month-long period of rain.  Dry BTK can be mixed with moistened bran to act as a bait and will last a few days until washed away.  Of course one can use the handpick squishbug method, but it might be difficult to keep up!  BTK cannot be used over and over without enabling cutworms to develop resistance.  Take care not to spray anything other than the very plants you need to protect when the larvae of butterflies are present.  Organically approved pesticides containing pyrethrin may also be used for heavy infestations.