Q. I want to plant husk cherries in my garden this year. What should I know about this fruit?
A. The husk cherry (Physalis pruinosa), a type of ground cherry, is a close relative of the tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) and Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi). The marble-size orange fruits are covered by a beige, papery husk. But unlike the tomatillo, husk cherries are sweet. Native to North America, the husk cherry tends to thrive anywhere a tomato would.
If you are growing the plant from seeds, now is the time to get to work. Seeds should be started indoors in April or five to seven weeks before transplanting them into the garden. Sow the seeds in a fine-peat mix, barely covering them. Keep soil temperature at 75 to 90 degrees until germination. Be aware that husk cherries are slow to germinate — it can take two weeks or longer. Keep soil moist until seedlings emerge. Once leaves develop, transplant the seedlings into pots. After the threat of frost has passed, you can plant the seedlings in your garden, spacing them 2 to 3 feet apart.
When husk cherries are ripe, they will fall from the plant. The husk should be dry and the fruit yellow orange. Be sure you and your pets avoid the fruit when it’s green, since ingesting it before it is ripe can make you sick.
These small fruits store well, which is lucky because they ripen only a few at a time. You can eat them in a variety of ways: raw, frozen, dried, canned, preserved, and in desserts and pies.
Q. What can I do to protect my garden from being ravaged by deer come spring?
A. A visit from a flock of hungry deer can do significant damage to any garden. During spring months, deer look for new growth in open areas, so freshly planted garden beds are especially vulnerable. The animals are particularly fond of the tender leaves of vegetables and flowers.
Your garden is also susceptible to damage from deer in late summer, when wild plants have lost their appeal and the sweetest plants available are on your property.
At my home in Bedford, N.Y., fencing permanently surrounds the farm to keep deer out. Nylon netting reaches more than 8 feet high to prevent long-legged ones from jumping over the barrier. If large-scale fencing around your yard would be an eyesore, Neil Soderstrom, author of “Deer-Restraint Landscaping,” recommends planting tall flowers and shrubs to encircle only the specific areas where you garden. You should create this screen with plants that deer don’t like to eat; talk to someone at your local nursery to see which of these are available in your part of the country.
Because of the size of the Bedford property — it’s 153 acres — application of deer-repellent spray to individual plants is not feasible. However, in smaller gardens it can work wonders to protect ornamental plants. Look for spray made of a combination of organic materials that repel deer without being poisonous, such as rotten eggs, pepper, cinnamon, and predator urine. For continued results, reapply the repellent frequently; it can easily wash away in the rain. Deer may eventually become accustomed to the presence of whatever repellent you use, so you should change up its ingredients every few weeks.
You can also try scaring deer away from your property, says Soderstrom. One common deterrent is a family dog. Dogs that bark and patrol your yard daily will likely persuade deer to find their meals elsewhere.
Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 601 West 26th Street, 9th floor, New York, N.Y. 10001.