Articles in Gardeners
Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger
Imagine a group of volunteers that has shown up each Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., April through October, since 1957 to plant, weed, harvest, dry, store and cook. At the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass., these volunteer Herb Associates are devoted to the dual mission of sustaining their local botanical garden by selling a wide range of in-house produced herb products, and educating the public about herbs.
"No excuse is needed for stressing the greater use of herbs and cooking. It is not a fad, it is nothing new. ... It is we in America who have forgotten our heritage of the art of flavoring and seasoning, of the art of wholesome and delicious cooking brought to this country by our ancestors." -- "The Book of Herb Cookery," by Irene Botsford Hoffmann, 1940
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Volunteerism, passion, curiosity and generosity define the Herb Associates of the BBG. They claim they are the only group in the country that grows and sells “on site.” Inspired by the BBG’s founder, Irene Botsford Hoffmann’s cookbook, “The Book of Herb Cookery,” published in 1940, the Herb Associates essentially created a bake sale with herbs. The herb products are the result of this dedicated group’s efforts to preserve and maintain the “show” and “working” herb gardens.
A team effort to preserve tradition
One of the oldest members, who refuses to say how long she’s been a member, prides herself on the fact that the herb garden is a show garden.
“We work in it so you don’t know we’ve worked in it.” There is no hierarchy within the group. Members naturally gravitate to the tasks that intrigue them or need doing. A volunteer who joined three years ago began working in the show garden, but when it was clear that help was needed in the kitchen, she embraced the jelly and jam making.
The members emphasize that even for them, participating in the Herb Associates is all about learning and camaraderie. Many members had never gardened before. They use the volunteer experience to learn. Another member, Iris Bass, relishes the social aspects of the group. While Iris has gleaned much garden wisdom from her six years as a member, she has also put her book-editing skills to work. She edited and designed the BBG’s “The Garden Cookbook, Celebrating 75 years of Growing and Cooking With Herbs.” The herb display garden, also known as the “show garden” exists to attract and to teach visitors. All the stonework is in its original layout and the plantings were redesigned four years ago to be more thematic and infused with pops of color. So much so, the color, come mid-August, takes your breath away.
The Herb Associates are charged with dead-heading, weeding, trimming and keeping the garden in tip-top shape. There is a Hogwarts garden that is designed with a magical mystical theme. Other plants in the garden include monkswood, the spectacular clary sage, nasturtium, fluffy poppies, lavender, allium, heliotrope, potpourri roses, tansy and much much more.
When a volunteer was seen wearing a sprig of tansy in her cap, a BBG visitor proclaimed, “I haven’t seen that since my mom used to do that.” Tansy is known for its insect repelling qualities. It is also quite pretty, resembling miniature curly kale with yellow flowers and makes great dry flowers.
The keepers of the secret recipes
The working garden is a combination of annuals and perennials. The plants are all chosen for their use in either drying or cooking. The lavender plants are a hardy species that date back to the original garden. Other perennials include lovage, also known as celery herb, which is a secret ingredient in many of the recipes. The perennials collection includes mint and, of course, chives, to name a few. The annuals include basil that is grown in large pots and nasturtium, which makes gorgeous vinegars.
While the gardening begins in April with digging, edging and preparing the soil, the kitchen gears up too. Mint that was infused and frozen over the winter is made into mint jelly. All season long, however, the kitchen relies on what the garden is producing and, in perfect harmony, creates products with those herbs.
Meanwhile the drying team gets busy as well. Great baskets full of herbs are washed with water, spun dry in a salad spinner, then placed on wonderful shelf-like racks with screens to air dry, and then finished in a dehydrator. It’s an ongoing and fluid process. Once the herbs are dried, they are made into a variety of dried herb mixes such as herbs de Provence, Chilean seasoning and salt-free herbed pepper.
To become a volunteer means you become a trustee of the “secret” recipes. Currently only one person knows the recipe for the herb mustard. The recipe book is off-limits to the public. Volunteers have fun tweaking the recipes, however. After all, no one really wants lime green mint jelly. They have eliminated the food coloring and have found that patrons welcome the more natural product. Like most things in the culinary world, recipes evolve to reflect the tastes of the times. And these times are ripe for the Herb Associates’ products as they are organic, and, of course, locally grown and produced.
This wonderful group of approximately 22 volunteers produces a plethora of jellies, vinegars, dressings, mustards, sauces, marinades and dried herb mixes, all with the purpose of funding the Berkshire Botanical Garden. In exchange, they preserve a way of life, fuel a passion and mostly tend a garden.
Top photo: A volunteer in the gardens at Berkshire Botanical Gardens. Credit: Courtesy of Berkshire Botanical Gardens.
Kimbal Musk has an audacious plan to destroy America’s appetite for junk food.
His big idea? Plastic.
Musk wants to revolutionize Alice Waters‘ concept of school gardens as societal change agents by making the gardens easy to build and maintain. More gardens will be installed and more students will learn the joy of growing and eating healthy fruits and vegetables.
As it is, Musk says, school gardens are a laudable idea that is dying on the vine. Raised wooden beds that look pretty when they are first planted disintegrate in a few short years. The alternative — concrete beds — is an ugly, expensive and permanent albatross schools grow to hate. Tear up school-yard blacktop to create green space? No public school has that kind of money.
Musk made it a personal project to design a solution. His modular plastic garden containers snap together to create customizable outdoor classrooms that can sit on top of existing hard scape. His concept is so slap-your-head simple that less than a year after launching his nonprofit Learning Gardens, Musk has commitments for at least 60 gardens each from Chicago, Los Angeles and Colorado to be installed by the end of 2013.
“I want to make the school-garden movement work,” says Musk, who was in Los Angeles two weeks ago to witness the planting of two giant gardens, a total of 3,000 square feet dedicated to fruits and vegetables, at Samuel Gompers Middle School in South L.A.
The key to ensuring that the gardens flourish is local control. Musk partners with a local sponsor, who raises the funds and works with the individual schools to design the gardens. “I don’t make a dime from this,” says Musk, “which gives us credibility with the people raising money to build these gardens.”
The Wasserman Foundation, led by sports business entrepreneur Casey Wasserman, took the lead at Gompers providing all of the funding and 100 Wasserman employees for the planting.
If gardens increase student engagement, they are a good investment, says Wasserman. “The success of our kids in our schools is the leading issue for our city.”
High tech and an apron
Musk comes to the school garden party with a rare combination of technology expertise and kitchen cred. In 1995 at 23, he and his brother Elon founded Zip2, an early content management system that provided the first maps and door-to-door directions on the Internet. The company built online restaurant and city guides in partnership with 100 major media companies, including the New York Times. It was sold in 1999 to Compaq for a reported $307 million.
Among several investments in startup software and technology companies, Musk helped his brother launch the company that would become PayPal. That venture was acquired by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion in stock. Elon used his winnings to found SpaceX and Tesla Motors while Kimbal redirected his energies into his passion for food, attending the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
After traveling the country with his wife in search of a community to call their own, the Musk family settled in Boulder, Colo., and, in 2004, the couple opened The Kitchen. Its composting, wind-powered, recycle-everything culture earned immediate applause from Boulder’s environmental community. Food critics from across the country raved about Musk’s garden-fresh cuisine featuring ingredients harvested from the massive garden he planted near the restaurant.
Turning point for more than Kimbal Musk
From the earliest days, Musk’s vision included a modest nonprofit to support school gardens, an effort he named The Kitchen Community. The huge leap from supporting Boulder-area school gardens to today’s sweeping ambition to build gardens in every school in the country came after nearly dying in a tubing accident 2½ years ago.
“After my accident, the stuff that mattered was stuff that made a difference in the world, not the stuff that made money,” Musk says in his soft South African accent, a lingering artifact from his childhood in Pretoria. He moved to Canada when he was 18.
“After Kimbal broke his neck, it super-charged the giving philosophy,” says Travis Robinson, Kitchen Community managing director, who also traveled from Boulder to help with the Gompers planting. “Kimbal is a visionary, but he is pragmatic. It’s step by step, day by day to create communities and empower people.”
Building school gardens costs a fraction of what it would cost to lobby Congress to change farm policy, says Musk. And in the long run, it is the more effective way to change society. “Start with the young, work with them until they are adults, and they will demand real food. When you have the demand, you can change the government policies that create McDonald’s and junk food.”
“I knew if I could make this work in the South Side of Chicago with $2 million, I could raise $2 billion and make it work everywhere,” he says. “We will have gardens in about 20% of Chicago’s schools. That’s a critical mass of students, enough for a movement that can change the food culture in that city. You do it child by child.”
Students aren’t the only people who can benefit from Musk’s novel approach. Last May, I asked Musk for help on a project to overhaul the outdoor space for a shelter for homeless female veterans. The backyard of the Venice, Calif., home was one giant cement slab, and they wanted a vegetable garden.
Musk came to the rescue with a “starter garden” that could sit on the cement. The lady vets loved how they could move the modules around to redesign their garden whenever they felt like a change.
Building the demand for fresh, wholesome food one person at a time.
Photo: Kimbal Musk with a student and special education teacher Holly Driscoll at Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown
One of the things I love most in the world is our vegetable garden. Just walking around in it makes me happy — drinking in the order and action of its raised beds with their rainbow lettuce rows, curling pea vines and kale splayed in giant topknots from knobby stems. Every morning I’m out there prowling to see what’s happened overnight, and soon I’m back, needing chard and collards for a breakfast shake. At noon, plants are stretching in the sun — can’t miss that — and by 6 or 7, it’s time to wander out and snip something for dinner.
Whatever else might be happening in my day, or in the world, the garden is always there, carrying on its unhurried, miraculous business in the bee-humming, earth-splitting Now. Being in it plugs me into that vital present, listening, smelling, belonging to it utterly, complete. So much does it move me that I’m amazed at how I ever lived without it and how utterly it has changed my world.
We made this garden four years ago, my husband and I, when our son was a high school senior, and we began to anticipate what it would mean to be alone again, the two of us. The economic recession had hit too. We saw friends losing jobs. Our own work lives were getting less predictable. We needed some all-absorbing task to perk us up, calm us down, give us a sense of our effectiveness beyond work. “Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote rather sharply in his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” and we took his words to heart.
Though we’d grown vegetables before — in pots by the kitchen door or mixed into garden beds — we’d never had a dedicated plot. We’d talked for years about taking over the space between our house and the garage, a concrete-paved court where our son had played basketball and skated. It also got the best sun on our city lot.
Rather than taking small steps that would allow us to measure our commitment, we had the concrete sawed up and re-laid into four permanent, raised beds, each 5 feet wide and 9 feet long, separated by gravel walks.
They looked huge in the beginning, filled with rich soil and tiny seedlings. But in a few months, we were greedy for more space. We ripped out a hedge along a nearby wall to seize more ground for tomatoes. We stopped going out to eat and rediscovered cooking, making soup stock from our greens and carrots, rémoulade with the root celery, caponata with the eggplant. Because our friends weren’t eating out much either, it seemed friendly — and easy — to invite them over to share whatever was ready in the garden. That list grew and grew, and began to include things we hadn’t known we liked: baby turnips, kohlrabi, broccoli rabe. And since “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” one winter we went with ‘Blauschokker Purple’ peas, the next with ‘Weggisser’ snaps and ‘Sugar Ann.’
Very little disappointed us, as Emerson had predicted (“With the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear”). We became worm farmers, making super soil with their castings and stronger, more prolific plants. We learned to pair certain bed-mates and not others (beets love cabbage, strawberries don’t).
But mostly, as we witnessed miracles of creation — feathery carrot sprouts, budding okra — we came to know that “the secret of fortune is joy in our hands.”
You plant the seed, you nurture it, it nurtures you. That’s it. That’s everything. The deepest mystery, the most irresistible thrill, just out there behind the house.
Susan Heeger, a contributing editor for Martha Stewart Living and the Los Angeles editor-at-large for Coastal Living, is the co-author, with urban farmer Jimmy Williams, of “From Seed to Skillet, A Guide to Growing, Tending, Harvesting, and Cooking Up Fresh, Healthful Food to Share With People You Love.” Just out from Chronicle Books, it’s on Amazon’s list of Best Books of 2010.
Photo: Susan Heeger’s vegetable garden. Credit: Eric Staudenmaier
By now, any chef worth her salt will extol the virtues of organic produce. Whether tomatoes grown using synthetic chemicals will hold their own in a taste test against an untainted harvest is rarely even up for debate. That food grown without pesticides, herbicides, hormones and other laboratory inventions simply tastes better has become the consensus in foodie circles, and I am thrilled.
In a sense, I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. My grandfather, J.I. Rodale, was also the grandfather of the organic movement; he started Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in the 1940s and Prevention magazine in 1950. So I was pushing the organic agenda back when it was eccentric and, later, when it was merely novel. Years after that, organic became trendy and I’m still working at it today — as it is gradually (finally!) going mainstream.
But better tasting food, though, is not my main motivator. Don’t get me wrong — no one appreciates the perfect deviled egg more than yours truly. But the most important reason for demanding organically grown food is this: It is the single most effective means of improving one’s health and the health of our planet.
More than 99% of U.S. farms aren’t certified organic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (In 2008 the nation had 14,540 organic farms, out of more than 2.2 million farms.) This industrial, chemical-laden farming is destroying us. In 1998, the EPA reported that of the 3,000 most widely used chemicals in the U.S., 43 percent had not been tested at all for toxicity. And yet each year we pour 1 billion pounds of active chemical ingredients onto our farms and lawn and homes.
We don’t know all the effects that these chemicals are having on our health, but it seems fair to assume nothing good. Medical researchers are investigating connections between agricultural chemicals and any number of rising health problems: allergies, autism, attention deficit disorder, asthma and diabetes. For instance, Dr. Philip Landrigan, chair of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, blames the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals for the doubled rate of MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant staph infection) among children from 2001 to 2006.
It’s critical to maintain the momentum toward more organic food production and spread the word to anyone willing to listen: Adding chemicals is not necessary to sustain American agriculture. The chemical companies are today’s “Big Tobacco,” and their chokehold on U.S. farming and agricultural policy is equally criminal. Maybe even more so, because this destruction doesn’t stop at our individual health. Our planet also suffers. Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil’s natural ability to store carbon, accelerating the global climate crisis. Future lives are at stake.
So how do we halt the poisoning of our food and planet? It’s simple: Buy organic. And if you can’t find it at your grocery store, demand it.
We vote with our dollars. When we buy candy, food manufacturers make more candy. If we buy factory-farmed meat, ranchers will continue to inject their cows with hormones and drugs. Food companies tally every purchase and go where the money is. By demanding organic — and telling our friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances to do the same — we can change what is on grocers’ shelves.
The fact that those organic purchases will take tonight’s meal to another level is just organic icing on the cake.
Maria Rodale is the Chairwoman and CEO of Rodale, Inc. Her latest book, “Organic Manifesto” was released in March 2010.
Photo: Author Maria Rodale. Credit: Cedric Angeles
More and more home gardeners are growing their own food this year. Plant nurseries and seed companies showed sales of vegetable seedlings and fruit trees on the rise this spring. For the most part, more garden geeks is fantastic news.
But here’s my dilemma: Are these new home gardeners going to be hoodwinked into contaminating their entire ZIP code by overfeeding their crops with synthetic fertilizers and foolishly spraying chemical pesticides each time they see a fly go by? Or will they smarten up and go organic?
If these newbie gardeners are not going to grow food organically, frankly I’d rather they choose a different hobby. Maybe knitting. Or Hacky Sack.
As a master gardener, garden author, dirt diva, mom and a relentlessly annoyed ex-New Yorker, I’m saying it straight up: If you’re not going organic in your backyard, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Here’s a little ecological update to get you up to speed. Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we’re a bunch of iPhone-toting treehuggers, every single creek is contaminated with high levels of pesticides including diazinon, a chemical that was banned nearly 10 years ago because of its toxicity to mammals.
We all blame the farmers and industry for polluting our soil, air and water — and they all do contribute to our pollution mess — but you may be shocked to learn that home gardeners are using three to six times more pesticide per acre than the average farmer. There are more than 20,000 pesticide products now marketed in the United States.
Other than shoes, who needs 20,000 of anything?
Agricultural chemicals in the water
An article in Science Daily in March reported on a new study. Research conducted by biologists at the University of California, Berkeley found that atrazine, one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, emasculates three-quarters of adult male frogs and turns one in 10 into female frogs. “More and more research is showing that atrazine interferes with endocrine hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone in fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, laboratory rodents and even human cell lines at levels of part per billion,” according to the March 1 article in Science Daily summarizing their findings. Atrazine is banned in Switzerland, ironically, the country where the product is made and sold by Syngenta, the largest agrichemical corporation in the world. According to the U.S. Geographical Survey, roughly 75 percent of stream water and 40 percent of groundwater samples contain atrazine.
Chemicals like atrazine aren’t just making their way into our water supply; they’re in our bodies. A study conducted by Environmental Working Group in 2006 studied the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies in the womb and found each had close to 300 chemicals already in them before they were born. In other words, we’re birthing pre-polluted babies. “If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and chairman of the school’s department of preventive medicine.
The thing is, it really, truly doesn’t have to be this way.
In her timely and enlightening new book, “Organic Manifesto,” author, farmer and CEO of Rodale Inc., Maria Rodale, writes of the “Farming System Trial” that her father, Robert Rodale began in 1990. It’s now the longest running scientific study comparing synthetic-chemical to organic agriculture. The trial clearly shows that organic farming is not only more productive than chemical farming, especially during times of flood or drought, but that soil farmed organically is a key component to solving our climate crisis. When we add layers of compost to our soil it feeds the millions of microorganisms who party like rock stars in healthy soil. Some of these organisms, such as Mycorrhizal fungi grow at the roots of plants and store carbon. A lot of carbon. These miraculous fungi build our soil and sequester excess carbon underground. Many such beneficial microbes no longer exist in conventional farmed soil because chemical fertilizers and herbicides eradicate them.
The organic mantra: compost, compost, compost
New garden geeks, your mantra should be, “Compost! Compost! COMPOST!”
Just what is compost? Black gold made from recycling food scraps and yard waste. Compost will slowly feed your plants while helping your soil retain water (a must for gardeners in the drought-prone western U.S.). Adding a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost to your yard once in spring and again in fall will keep the happy microbes and earthworms busy underground, breaking down its organic material into nutrients that will nourish your plants for months.
Gardeners can make their own compost (and earn a gold star from me) or buy it from a local garden center. In some forward-thinking towns, the local recycling or refuse center will sell compost inexpensively as a way to keep yard clippings out of the landfill. Win-win! Less landfill in your community, free fertilizer for your yard and healthier plants that won’t attract so many pests. Bring it on!
I was raised and hardened in New York City and thought that flowers came from the florist and that produce just appeared in the supermarket when you were hungry. If I now can grow plants, fruits and vegetables in a sustainable and safe way, anyone, and I mean anyone can. Mother Earth urgently needs more compost queens and dirt divas speaking out for the earthworms and the soil; so put on that hideous garden hat, grab that old shovel and go get dirty.
Annie Spiegelman is a master gardener, columnist, green blogger for the Huffington Post and author of the book, “Talking Dirt,” “Growing Seasons” and “Annie’s Garden Journal.”
Photo credit: Bill Buzbuzian
Second in a four-part series on growing fruit.
Growing up in the west of Ireland in the 1970s, citrus fruit consisted of large, juicy oranges from Israel, labeled Jaffa. Lemons were a luxury, and more often than not we had to settle for a sad substitute called Jiffy in a plastic squeezy bottle shaped like a lemon.
From time to time I would grow an orange seed and manage to get a really small tree to grow, sitting in a ceramic pot on the windowsill, the rain pelting the glass pane. Inevitably my little glossy green-spined plant would succumb to excessive watering and the cold.
Many years later I traveled to Israel, and when visiting a friend at Kibbutz Petah Tikva it was a revelation and a joy to walk through orange, lemon and grapefruit groves. Now I live in California and enjoy the opportunity to grow a wide range of citrus in my back yard both in the ground and in pots.
Citrus (Rutaceae), a member of the rue family, requires heat, good drainage and a modicum of fertilizer twice annually to thrive. In colder climates, it’s possible to grow them in pots under glass, taking care to protect well in winter by providing a heated greenhouse. In warmer climates, citrus does well in the ground and smaller dwarf varietals really do well in large pots that have the soil correctly amended. There are lots of choices for the smaller garden space. Some are available on dwarf and semi dwarf stock. Dwarf can easily be maintained at 3 to 4 feet; semi dwarf stock can reach 6 to 10 feet.
Citrus can be used in many ways, from juicing to marmalades, or as a flavoring. Citrus fruits can be pickled, candied and dried.
A few important pointers on cultivation
Caring for citrus trees isn’t too difficult, but you need to be attentive and watch for a few key signs of trouble.
Plant in full sun in well-draining soil and feed twice a year with an organic citrus fertilizer. Kelp meal and cottonseed meal will also help with blossom and fruit set.
- Follow the directions carefully, as over application is not advisable.
- Watering should be deep and infrequent. So many homeowners grow citrus in lawns where over-watering results in yellowing (chlorosis) and, in extreme cases, the death of the tree.
Deep green glossy leaves indicate a healthy plant. Pot cultivation is simple, and the addition of a bagged cactus mix to native soil gives the good drainage required. Potted plants should also be fertilized twice a year. Citrus can also be espaliered (grown flat) against a wall. A simple wired grid can be made on the wall and the growing plant attached to the grid, making sure to keep any excessive branches pruned back.
Pests and diseases
A few serious diseases can affect citrus. Scale, thrips and mites are the most common pests. Many of the remedies used are chemical in nature, and I do not recommend using them. These chemicals ultimately end up in the fruit and will be ingested by the consumer. An alternative is to grow lots of beneficial insect-attracting plants in your yard, where predatory insects such as lacewings, wasps, pirate bugs and spiders will eat these pests. Mites thrive in hot dry weather on stressed plants so make sure to water deeply during excessively hot weather to help counteract these infestations.
As a beekeeper, my bees love the emergence of citrus flowers in March and April. The resulting orange blossom harvest is a delicate and complex, tasting light honey.
There is a large and ever-growing selection of citrus available in your local nurseries and even in large box stores such as Home Depot and Lowes.
If you follow a few straightforward instructions you can grow beautiful citrus year after year. Create well amended fast draining soil, fertilize twice a year and irrigate deeply and infrequently. It’s as simple as that.
John Lyons is the founder of Earthmatters, a gardening school in Los Angeles‘ Silver Lake neighborhood, and The Woven Garden, a firm specializing in edible landscaping. He has written on gardening for the Los Angeles Times and California Gardener.
When I was first dating the man who is now my husband, I cooked him what I thought was a delicious supper: a big hot bowl of oxtail stew. He was horrified and refused to eat it. Since then I have discovered that he will have none of my favorites — no juicy marrow cooked inside its bone, no cow’s tongue, and none of the delicious green, sloppy tomalley that lies inside a lobster’s head.
What is it about American meat lovers that they refuse to eat or even taste wonderful British staples? My theory is that they must visualize the raw organ and its function. If that was my way, I should never have eaten the part of a chicken that my father called “the parson’s nose.” Indeed, my siblings and I would fight over who got to eat the chicken’s bottom! Try it, it’s delicious.
Tongue sandwiches I learned to love from Wally, my grandmother’s gardener. He was also our own family gardener, builder and a great friend to all of us. He was Buckinghamshire born and bred and had the accent of the English countryside; imagine if a home-churned pat of butter could speak — that’s how Wally spoke.
Wally worked in our garden every day, and he was my father’s greatest friend. (When my father died in 1990, Wally — then 87 years old, and four years from his own passing — insisted on digging the grave. After the coffin was laid to rest, Wally returned the soil to the ground, “Ever so gently for the boss,” he said.) Every summer, the two men would compete to grow the biggest onion. Both took this very seriously and spent months, independently traveling many miles around England looking for the nursery with the highest quality of giant onion seed.
Phil, Wally’s wife, was tall, thin and I never saw her without an apron tied around her waist. She had fashionable blue-tinted hair, held perfectly in place with a net of the same color. She always looked stern, even when she smiled. But she took great care of Wally. Every day, she would send him off to our house to work, with his lunch that was always the same — a cow tongue sandwich with butter on white bread. As a young girl, I would sit with Wally on a garden bench, greedily accepting when he offered me half his lunch.
Once a week, my sister Ophelia and I would go to Wally and Phil’s for supper. Phil always made something, that to us, was utterly delicious — boiled bacon, steak and kidney pie, oxtail stew, liver and onions, fried eggs with black pudding (blood sausage). Each dish was accompanied by peas and boiled potatoes from the garden.
The supper game was always the same. Pea flicking! Wally would distract Phil and then flip his peas with a spoon at us across the table. “Phil, look at that finch!” he would exclaim, she would turn to the window, and peas would fly! We all laughed hysterically. Except Phil. I’m sure she knew what we were up to, but she always played along.
At the end of the meal, Wally would scrape his plate clean with his fork and lick his knife, as either a sweet ode to Phil’s good cooking, or a demonstration of extremely bad manners. I was always afraid he would slice his tongue right off.
There was no pea flicking at the table at home, and certainly no knife licking. We ate slightly more sophisticated food like roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, gammon, or smoked haddock baked in milk and butter. Depending on the season, sometimes we roasted a freshly hung pheasant, brought over by a neighbor.
Although the foodstuffs were different, the suppers were the same in both houses: always good conversation, laughter and feasting. None of us even considered (as children do today) rejecting any of the delicious food, but always asked for seconds and thirds.
My husband tells me that his unwillingness to eat my favorite foods is cultural. However, he wasn’t raised on sushi, which he loves, or foie gras — whose origin is far more repulsive than an oxtail. But then I’m not sure Wally would have thought much of toro. Is it snobbery or fear? Probably a little of both. All I can say is I am very glad I was raised not to be snobbish or fearful because some of the most delicious food comes out of some of the most unlikely kitchens.