Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From the Inbox: More Navel Orange Drop

From a Correspondent:

I have a sole Navel orange tree. The fruit suddenly began to turn color from green toward orange in the past two weeks. Any fruit that achieves all-over light orange drops from the tree. They taste bitter as they have not sweetened yet. In addition, those that drop have thin skins.

The rest of the fruit seems healthy but is galloping toward ripeness. Since the tree only has about 35-40 oranges on it, better than last year's urban crop, we hope to preserve the rest. A friend told me to be sure to deep water the tree as it may have been caused by our warm fall and lack of deep watering. I did so last week but it might be too little, too late.

Is my entire crop in trouble? Is there anything I can do now?

Hopeful in Chandler
Dear Hopeful, The best thing you can do right now is follow your friend's advice: water the tree deeply, down three feet into the soil, and at least as wide as the drip-line. If you did this last week, wait another week before doing it again; every two weeks is as frequent as you want to water right now. If last week's watering wasn't a full three feet down, go ahead and do that now.

I addressed the problem with Navel Orange fruit drop in a previous post earlier this year. What you're seeing now is much the same problem, exacerbated by an extremely stressful Summer. As you know, your July was the hottest on record, the monsoons rains were AWOL, and you have yet to have any Winter rains. All of that has been hard on your tree, and it's responding by shedding fruit.

The early coloring of the fruit, usually a hopeful sign of impending harvest, is in this instance a signal that the tree is giving up on the given fruit, and letting go. As much as I hate to say it, the deep watering is the only thing you can try, and it may not be enough to save this year's crop; Navel Oranges are temperamental in the Phoenix area in the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances.

For future years, take a look at the approach outlined in the earlier post, and be certain to supply the tree with deep but infrequent irrigation during the worst Summer months. If it's any comfort at all, know that you are not alone in getting whacked this year. With any luck, next year will be back to normal, or we will at least be prepared if it's not.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From the Inbox: Pruning New Citrus

From a Correspondent:

I just had two Minneola Tangelo trees planted as part of our landscaping at our new house. The trees are about 4' tall and have several un-ripened tangelos on the limbs. Since this is September, it seems that these tangelos are "left over" from last year’s growth and should be removed. Perhaps a bit of prudent limb trimming would be in order, too?
Larry
Wickenburg, Arizona
Larry,
Stop, put down the pruners, and slowly step away from the trees. No. Further away; I want to see more daylight.

OK.

First, let me say: I understand. It's a guy thing – not entirely, but mostly. We get a clunking clothes dryer, and we must open that panel labeled "do not open." We get a new jigsaw, and suddenly the world must be cut into fancy curves. We get a new grill, and every meal must be barbecued. We get a new tree, and it must be pruned.

I understand. I sympathize. I hear that faint pleading in your final question. I too have used that same tone of hopeful inquiry while gripping a shiny new reciprocating saw and asking, "Perhaps a larger front door would be in order?"

The unripened fruit on your tangelo trees are left over from this Spring, and if allowed to grow they will ripen and be ready to pick this coming Winter. In other words, they are the current crop. The only reason you would remove them is if you thought they would be a stressor on the newly planted trees.

Citrus can be somewhat variable in their season, but generally speaking the fruit that is pollinated in the Spring will grow throughout the Summer months and ripen in the Winter. Unlike deciduous fruits, citrus take a long time to ripen, and if you were to remove un-ripe fruit every September you would never have any fruit.

As to the prudent limb pruning, skip that also. Newly planted trees are stressed, and the best remedy for stressed trees is to allow them to keep all their leaves. Right now, those leaves are shading the trunks and branches, cooling the immediate area around the tree, and providing the trees with the sugars and starches they need to establish new root systems and new top growth. As we go into the cool season, your citrus will need their energy reserves to survive and thrive. And you want them to establish well now so that they will be prepared to flower next Spring and then have the strength to make it through their first Arizona Summer.

Keep in mind also that Wickenburg might be considered a marginal area for citrus, depending on your immediate micro-climate. Minneola Tangelos are an excellent choice for the cooler-Winter citrus areas, but you will still want to leave as much dense foliage as possible, to help insulate the trees against Winter freezes.

In short, I'm ruining all your fun. I know, and I'm sorry. Here's what you do instead: buy a new set of pipe wrenches, crack open a few walls, and take a good hard look at your plumbing. That sounds like more fun anyway.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Thursday, August 27, 2009

From the Inbox: Watering a Vegetable Garden

From a Correspondent:

I need some help. I live in the Phoenix area, and need some advice on watering my garden. Specifically, EXACTLY how to water when planting vegetable seeds.
I've already dug in compost, and I'm ready to plant. I'm pretty sure that my only marginal success in the past is due to watering issues. I've read everything I can find, but it's just not specific enough for me. Things like "keep the soil moist until the seedlings are established" just isn't that much help.
If you were planting vegetable seeds tomorrow, and only had a garden hose to water with, how would you water, when would you water, how much? Does the soil really need to be constantly moist? Would I water daily? Twice a day? When do I change the watering schedule?
My future vegetables and I thank you in advance.
CM, somewhere in the Phoenix area.
Dear CM:
You are not going to like my answer. Just wanted you to know that in advance.

If I were planting seeds tomorrow and only had a garden hose, I would keep the soil moist until the seedlings are established. I know, the same old advice. Problem is, it's good and sufficient advice. Let me explain why.

We have, in much of our lives, grown accustomed to a certain precise relationship between inputs and outcomes. We open up a cardboard box, place the contents in the microwave for the specified period of time, and a perfectly cooked meal arrives. We open up another cardboard box, push Tab A into Slot B, and we have a perfectly balanced and functional piece of furniture. We open up another box, this one plastic, type in a specific combination of letters and symbols, and a perfectly functional Web site appears before our eyes.

It's all rather comfortably predictable and precise.

But the created world – the true created world, not our version of it – doesn't work that way. Deo gratias.

The true world is full of mysteries and relationships. The true world – and that is the realm within which gardening lies – offers us an invitation, and it is an invitation to participation. We are free to accept or reject that invitation, but if we reject it, we reject its fruits (and vegetables), and if we accept it, we accept the continuing call to participation which it entails.

What does this mean for your vegetable seedlings? Because we live in the desert, inadequate watering is, as you noted, frequently the proximal cause for mediocre results in the vegetable garden. But the ultimate cause is very often our belief that we can calculate our inputs, leave them to run, and expect good results.

There have been many times when I have walked into a client's garden and had a version of the following conversation:

  • Gardener: Why do my plants look so bad?
  • Me: The soil is completely dry and they need water.
  • Gardener: But they're scheduled to be watered two days from now.
  • Me: They need water today or they will die.
  • Gardener: But they're scheduled to be watered two days from now.
  • Me: They'll be dead by then.
  • Gardener: But I always water them on Saturday.

The watering needs in your garden are determined not by the clock or the calendar, but by the complex relationship between sun, soil, humidity, weather and the type of plant you select. Your garden is unique to you; no other is precisely like it. It simply isn't possible for me to give you an exact schedule with precise amounts.

That means you're going to have to water your seeds when you plant them and then every morning and evening go out there and see how things are going. Get down and stick a finger in the soil to make certain it's moist, and water if it's getting dry. Water gently, so you don't wash the soil away. Spread a layer of mulch around the seedlings once they sprout, to help conserve moisture in the soil.

As they grow, water more deeply, to a depth of six inches or more, and then you can begin watering less frequently. How will you know when to water less frequently?

You'll have to learn by watching and participating.

If the days are hot and dry, you may water every day. If cool and rainy, maybe not for a week. You're going to learn to watch your plants: If they start to wilt after four days with no water, then perhaps you need to water on the third day instead.

All plants need deep, but infrequent water. Learning what that means in practice takes, well . . . practice. I told you you weren't going to like my answer.

If you have more questions as your garden grows, let me know.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Vegetable Gardens: Starting Simply

Mark Twain famously advised, "Buy land, they're not making it anymore."

If you'll forgive my mangling Mr. Clemens' aphorism, allow me to alter that advice: "Don't buy soil, there's no need to make any more." Or something to that effect.

That doesn't quite work, does it? Never mind.

On to business:

One of the most common themes I hear when talking to people about starting a vegetable garden is the need to "buy soil." I'm frequently asked what kind of soil is best to buy, or what kind of soil is best to buy for a raised garden, or, most distressingly: "I've dug all the soil out of my garden area and thrown it away; what should I buy to replace it with?"

Frequently, the upshot of the assumption that soil is a commodity is the decision that one can't possibly plant a garden until one can "afford" soil, or until one's husband finishes building the raised beds, or until the nursery re-stocks a particular brand of vermiculite, or until one finds a better "soil recipe" than the one used last season. This is nonsense. With a very few exceptions, if you have a plot of land, you have all the soil you need.

What you need, because this is the desert, is to improve the soil you already have, and that is very simple indeed. Select your garden spot and clear it of grass and weeds. Layer on top of your existing native soil a good 5 to 6 inches of organic amendment such as compost, or a combination of compost and manure. Using your spading fork, turn that layer into your existing soil to a depth of 10 to 12 inches. Rake it out, break up the large clods, and you're ready to go.

Do you now have perfect garden soil? No.

Good garden soil is not something you can buy, nor is it something you can achieve instantly. Good garden soil develops over time and there are no shortcuts.

Each season, as you prepare for the next planting, repeat the process: layer, dig, rake, plant. In the Desert Garden, with our multiple growing seasons, you can amend your soil three times a year.

Start now, and by this time next year, you'll have very good garden soil; by this time the following year, you can modestly call it "almost perfect."
Tyler


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Thursday, June 18, 2009

From the Inbox: Where Does Your Garden Grow?

From a Correspondent:

We are about to purchase a house in Gilbert, Arizona that has an East-West exposure with the backyard on the East side of the house. My question is where should we position the vegetable garden that we are so eager to plant? We want to start out with one raised bed and see how it goes from there. . . . . . . . I'm sorry I don't have pictures to supply, we haven't moved in yet but I hope my descriptions get the idea across!
Thanks so much!
Kelsey
Soon to be from Gilbert, Arizona

Good morning Kelsey, and thank you for the detailed description; you did indeed get the idea across. I omitted some of the details you sent, because the answer is fairly straightforward and applies in every gardening situation.

Whenever we prepare and plant a vegetable garden, we want to place it in a location where it will receive a minimum of six to eight hours of sun each day during the season in which the vegetables are growing. I could just say "put it where it gets 6 to 8 hours of sun," but in the Desert Garden our multiple growing seasons mean we need to think it through just a little further.

In more northerly, and colder, climates, the main growing season is late Spring through Summer, and we simply put the garden in the area that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun from late Spring through Summer; sun patterns change throughout the year, but our gardening is limited to one period, so no worries. In the Desert Garden, however, we are growing vegetables year-round and a location that may be in full Sun in May is not going to be in full sun in October or January, so we need to plan accordingly.

So how does that work out?

For your Fall and Winter garden, you'll generally need to find a location with a southerly orientation with no trees, walls, etc., to block the low-lying winter Sun. For your Spring to Summer garden, you have more flexibility and can generally plant to the North or to the South; an East-facing exposure may not get sufficient sun throughout the day, and a West exposure can be too hot for all but the very toughest of plants.

As you're in Gilbert, I am guessing that you have a Home-Owners' Association and will not be able to plant the front yard to a vegetable garden. So find the spot in the backyard with the best South exposure, free of heavy tree-shade, and place your garden there.

And don't be afraid to place it smack-dab in the middle of the yard; there's nothing at all ugly or unattractive about a vegetable garden!

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Sunday, May 24, 2009

From the Inbox: Navel Orange Fruit Drop

From a Correspondent:

I have a navel orange tree that flowered like crazy, produced a ton of fruit but 99% of the fruit fell off. I have one orange as of now and the same thing happened to my dad's tree as well. Do you know why that is happening? He has lemons and limes that are doing great.
Karri,
Henderson, Nevada
Good morning Karri,
Isn't that annoying? Flowers everywhere, and then suddenly all seems for naught.

All citrus trees experience a certain amount of fruit-drop, but Navel Oranges in particular "shed unusually freely," which is the academic way of saying: hey, all the fruit fell off! Citrus fruit drop is often called "June drop" because it happens in May.

May and June are typically the most stressful season for plants in the Desert Garden. The Spring rains are past, the temperatures are rising markedly, and the atmospheric humidity of the monsoon season is still in the future. In response to these stressors, citrus trees "balance the load" by dropping excess fruit. It's essentially a physiological response to conditions that helps to ensure that the tree has no more fruit than it can support.

Remember, with all fruits, while our goal is food, the tree's "goal" is reproduction. So from a tree's perspective, if it had one, which it doesn't, because it's a plant, but let's not quibble, a very few healthy fruits (with their seeds) is a better situation than tons of struggling fruit. That gives us a clue as to why Navel Oranges are more prone to "shed unusually freely."

Navel Oranges are mutant sports of another orange tree, and they don't produce fruit sexually; they produce fruit parthenocarpically, meaning without cross-fertilization. The term itself is from the Greek, parthenos meaning virgin, and carpos meaning fruit. And that fruit is seedless, so, while from our perspective a Navel Orange tree may be productively loaded with wonderful fruit, technically the tree is sterile.

Bear with me, I am going somewhere with this.

When June drop occurs and a citrus tree begins to shed excess fruit, priority is given to fertilized fruit. You noted that your dad's lemons and limes are doing fine; I would bet a donut that they also lost fruit, but since most of their fruit is fertilized, they kept much more on the tree than did the Navel. The Navel fruit is sterile, so of lower priority in the grand scheme of reproduction.

What do you do about it? The key is to remember that it's the stressors that trigger June drop, so the solution for future years is to minimize the effects of the stressors. As the weather heats up and dries up in late Spring, be certain that your Navel tree has been watered deeply and is thoroughly hydrated. We tend to not worry about upping the irrigation until full Summer, but it's late Spring that nails the tree. You can't go by the calendar. This year, for instance, the Desert Garden stayed pretty cool fairly late, and then heated up fast in early May. Each year is different.

As always, the goal is deep but infrequent irrigation. Try to get the root zone, out to the canopy of the tree, watered to depth of three feet into the ground. This gives the tree moisture reserves to draw on, and encourages deep rooting. Don't let the tree stand in wet soil, though; this can also be a stressor.

Along with your deep irrigation, be careful about how you fertilize your tree. Always give the first dose of fertilizer at or before full bloom, water it in thoroughly, and use lower amounts than listed on the fertilizer label. Three small doses of fertilizer spread over time is a much better method than one big dose all at once. I recommend not fertilizing again until the fruits are at least the size of a golf ball and June drop is past. We typically over-fertilize our home citrus, so err on the side of restraint.

And now for the good news: little green citrus fruit are adept at hiding among the leaves until sometime much later in the year when they suddenly turn bright orange and surprise you. You may still have more fruit this year than you think.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Little Earth Day Television

For something a little different on Earth Day, I spent part of the morning down at the ABC 15 studios talking about vegetable gardening on the Sonoran Living morning show. You can view the segment by clicking on the video link to the right, on this page. It went pretty well, due entirely to the host, Stephanie Sandoval; one of the things that always interests me about seeing the "inside" is the realization of how much skill it takes to make things look easy.
Tyler


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From the Inbox: Tomato Pruning and Soil

From a correspondent:

I have a question about soil and compost: Can I use potting soil and regular dirt, mixed, instead of compost? If not, can I purchase compost? Also with tomato plants when they start to bear fruit, should I wean out leaves and bottom shoots ? I have three plants that I started with, and they are starting to bloom and bear fruit.
Bob, Casa Grande, Arizona

Good morning Bob,
Great questions, and both issues are important in the Desert Garden.

First to the soil and compost. Whenever possible, the foundation for your vegetable garden should be your native soil. Real soil, the kind we buy with the house, is chock full of desirable minerals and other plant nutrients; the minerals we eat in our vegetables come from the soil in which they grew. Potting soil doesn't have those good qualities.

So our goal always is to amend out native soil with compost or other organic material, rather than to use potting soil (besides, by volume, potting soil is expensive!) And don't be tempted to mix potting soil in as a substitute for compost; it really isn't the same thing and it won't do a good job. If you're not yet making your own compost, you can buy it in bags or in bulk. Mix it onto your native garden soil, and you're on your way.

Now for the tomatoes: make life easier on yourself and on your tomatoes, and don't pinch out leaves and bottom shoots. In other climates, gardeners often pinch out extra tomato shoots and leaves to open up the plant, promoting ripening and light in the interior. Here in the Desert Garden, we want to do just the opposite.

Very soon now, our weather will be steadily hot and sunny, and that's hard on the tomatoes. If you leave the leaves and shoots, they help to form a shady and cooler canopy that will help to protect the ripening fruit; that's one of the best ways to ensure good tomatoes in the desert.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Thursday, April 16, 2009

From the Inbox: Plant in basins, not hills

A correspondent recently wrote in to ask why all the seed packets for melons and squash tell us to plant the seeds in mounds, or hills.

Simple answer: Because the people who write the seed packets don't live in the desert.

For much of the country, excess water can be one of the downfalls of the vegetable garden. Soggy soil results in seeds that rot before they sprout, cold soil with no air, and rotting roots in already growing plants. Their solution – and it's a good one – is to plant on raised ridges, hills, or mounds that allow the soil to warm and drain.

Excess rainfall is not a problem in the Desert Garden, and following the seed-packet advice can cause your plants to fail. There's two reasons:

First, we want our garden planting areas to collect as much rain water as they can, and to hold as much irrigation water as possible; anything that leads water away from your vegetables can result in dry soils and consequent poor plant growth.

The second, and less intuitive, reason has to do with our salty soils and water. If you've ever watered a patch of bare desert soil and then let it dry out in the sun, you may have noticed a white or yellowish-white residue left on the soil surface; if there are clods of dirt in the area, they may have been completely encased in this residue. That residue is made up of salts that have been dissolved out of the soil and have then migrated to the soil surface. As the water evaporates out of the soil, the salts are deposited at the highest point of evaporation. If we were to plant our vegetables on ridges or mounds, the highest point of evaporation would be right where the seedlings come out of the soil, resulting in salt deposition at the tender spot where the roots meet the stem at soil level; if you recall what the Romans did to Carthage, you know that's really bad for our plants.

So here's what we do instead: after you've prepared your soil by digging in plenty of compost, use a rake, or your hands, to form a planting basin. Just pull some soil aside to make little "walls" that surround the area you'll be planting, then plant your seeds or plants in the bottom of that basin. Not only will that allow rain and irrigation water to collect where it's most needed, but it will also result in the salts being deposited on the high edges of the basin, well away from the plants.

I hope this helps,

Tyler


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Thursday, March 26, 2009

From the Inbox: Spacing Corn

Joanne in Henderson, Nevada, left a comment the other day, in which she mentioned she might be planting corn in two 2-foot by 8-foot by 12-inch-high raised beds.

Corn is one of the vegetables for which spacing makes all the difference. You can scatter tomatoes all around the yard, plant peppers in amongst your roses, and sow your carrots willy-nilly, but not so with corn. Corn is unique in being the only grain we grow with any regularity in the home garden and, as with all grain, corn is wind-pollinated; this has practical consequences.

Corn pollen is produced in a tassel at the very top of the plant; these tassels are the "male" parts of the plant. The "female" parts of the plant are the ears formed in the leaf axils along the stalks. From each of these ears extends a cluster of what we call "silk." The far, unseen end of each silk thread is attached to a corn-kernel-in-waiting down inside the ear on what will eventually be the corn cob. What this means is that in order for a grain of corn to form, pollen must travel from the top of the plant, to deep inside the ear, all without any help – and this has to happen for every single kernel of corn.

On a perfectly calm and still day, it is possible that pollen might fall straight down from the tassels, land on the silks, and form a kernel. On a day like today, when the wind is blowing like mad, and rose petals are scampering back and forth across my yard like a flock of frightened sheep, there is a good chance that all the pollen will simply blow away – and that is the number one cause of failure when growing home corn.

The way we get around that is to always plant corn in blocks rather than in long rows. That way, the blowing pollen will likely blow onto the silks on the next plant over and pollinate the kernels.

All of which might be a long-winded way of suggesting, Joanne, that you want to be certain your corn isn't' stretched out in two 8-foot rows, but is rather in more of a block. If your beds are adjacent along the 8-foot sides, consider planting 2 four-foot rows at one end (the same end) of each, for a total of 16 plants, and then using the remaining end of each bed for either a different crop or a later planting of corn.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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New Vegetable and Composting Classes

I'll be putting together a new series of vegetable gardening and composting classes in the next few weeks. The classes are always small, to ensure plenty of hands-on instruction, so space is limited. If you're interested in getting information about the classes when the schedule is finished, send me an e-mail to get on the list. As always, put "Desert Garden" in the subject line, and be sure to let me know if you're more interested in weekday or Saturday classes.
Tyler


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From the Inbox: Potted lemon

Potted Lemon Tree

From a Correspondent:

I have a potted dwarf Lisbon Lemon that is 3 years old. It finally has bloomed just recently but just doesn't seem joyous. Some of the leaves have a yellowing vein pattern. I imagine it is a deficiency or that I need to repot. Where would you recommend to go for deficiency diagnosis? I want to make my tree as happy as can be! Haven't had much luck with some of the nurseries or blogs.
Thank a bunch,
Isabella
Tempe, Arizona
Good morning Isabella,
Don't spend your time or money on any kind of testing for soil deficiency. Growing citrus in pots in the Desert Garden does take a little extra care, but not that much. As your lemon is three years old and blooming, you've done a good job so far, and only a couple of adjustments are needed if you want it to really thrive.

First, in looking at the picture you sent, it appears that the yellowing leaves are primarily older leaves, from last year or the year before. As with all evergreen plants, the plant as a whole says green year-round, but the individual leaves have a finite life-span. This time of year, it's perfectly normal to see the older leaves on a citrus tree fade, turn yellow, and fall. I'm guessing that's what you're seeing, so there's no cause for concern on that account.

But, let's take a broader look at citrus in pots.

When they grow in the ground, trees have several natural advantages: they have (in theory) unlimited space in which to spread their roots; they have a natural reserve of moisture in the soil; their roots are kept cool by the lower temperatures underground; and the trees can tap into the naturally occurring soil minerals. These are all essential for the tree's health and growth, and they are all missing in a potted tree. Our job, when we grow a tree in a pot, is to keep these lacking elements in mind, and to compensate for them as much as possible.

If you take a look at the picture you sent me, you'll notice that it's a big tree in a little pot; you're right: it's time to re-pot. Your tree needs additional root space to maintain a moisture reserve and cooler roots.

Think about a typical 105° Summer day in the Desert Garden; even if the pot is not in direct Sun, over the course of the day the pot and the soil in it will heat up, just by virtue of the surrounding air temperature. The larger the pot, the slower the soil heating , and the larger the moisture reserve.

You're not going to want to re-pot a lemon tree every few years, so I recommend getting a large pot, some good soil-based potting soil, and re-potting now. Do your tree a favor and get a pot with straight sides. Tapered pots like the one you have now are not very good for trees in the long run; they have a small soil volume compared to their top diameter, and they also have a tendency to tip over once the tree gets larger. Be certain your new pot has a drainage hole and – here's the exciting part – do not use gravel, sand, old potsherds, or anything else to "improve" the drainage at the bottom. Contrary to popular wisdom, gravel in the bottom of a pot will impede drainage, not improve it.

And, last, because your lemon tree will not have much in the way of minerals from its artificial soil, you'll want to fertilize it several times a year with a citrus fertilizer. I recommend using the fertilizer at a rate of about one-quarter the rate recommended on the fertilizer label. Your potted lemon will respond better to several very small and well-spaced doses of fertilizer, rather than one big one, and too much at one time will stress the plant and possibly damage it. Whenever we fertilize, either in a pot or in the ground, always water first, then scratch in the fertilizer, then water again; this should prevent the fertilizer from "burning" the roots. These light fertilizer applications will take care of any mineral deficiencies that are showing up in the leaves.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Composting: Citrus and Citrus Peels

This past Saturday, I spent 7 hours standing at a table on a garden tour, talking about composting. Yes, it's a glamorous life I lead; don't be jealous.

Given that we are now at the tail end of citrus season, the question I heard again and again throughout the day was, "Can you put citrus and peels in the compost pile?" Most frequently, it wasn't posed as a question, but rather as a statement in the negative. And, oddly, I heard from any number of people that their son or daughter or husband or wife wouldn't let them put citrus in their compost pile. Not putting citrus in the compost pile must be one of the most entrenched myths about composting in the Desert Garden; everyone knows it's a bad idea.

As it turns out, all those everyones are wrong. Citrus peels, and whole citrus are a great addition to the compost pile, and they break down as readily and as thoroughly as any other ingredient (and better than some). So let's explode some myths:

Myth: Citrus peels contain a chemical that keeps them from breaking down in the compost pile, or will cause your compost pile to stop working.
Truth: Citrus peels are a great addition to the pile, break down easily and quickly, and contain no chemicals adverse to the composting process. Citrus does contain some strong compounds, but none of them prevent or harm the composting process. Here at The Ranch, I've been composting citrus peels for years and have never had a problem.
Myth: Whole citrus cannot be added to the compost pile because they won't break down.
Truth: There is a grain of truth to this one, but only a grain. Certain citrus, most notably the Sour or Seville Orange, will not break down if the peel is perfectly intact. My guess is that the oils and acids of the rind prevent the entry of composting micro-organisms. If, however, the peel has even the slightest cut or scrape, or opening, the fruit will compost quickly and completely. When adding whole citrus to your compost pile, simply take a half a second and make certain the rind is cut. Or, just take a jab at them with your spading fork whenever you turn the pile; it's good practice for hand/eye coordination.

Myth: Citrus will make your compost acidic, and that's a bad thing.
Truth: To the contrary, it's a good thing. Our soils here in the Desert Garden are highly alkaline, so slightly acidic compost will be beneficial. While our native and adapted desert plants do fine in our naturally alkaline soils, the vegetables and flowers that we grow in compost-amended soils prefer a soil pH of around 7 to slightly below, so if our compost ends up acidic, so much the better.

Myth: OK, fine, some citrus is acceptable, but you have to be sure not to add too much.
Truth: You can't add too much citrus to your compost pile, but you can add too much in proportion to other ingredients. But that's true of anything. I did have one woman tell me that she filled her compost bin to the top with citrus and citrus peels and it didn't make compost. When I asked what else was in the bin, she said, "Nothing, just the citrus." And therein lay the problem. Citrus is considered a "green" or nitrogen-bearing material. The basic recipe for compost has four necessary ingredients: carbon, nitrogen, water, and air. Absent any of the four, the process won't work. A bin full of nothing but citrus won't produce compost any better than a bin full of nothing but grass or lettuce leaves; that it's citrus is irrelevant. So go ahead and add as much citrus as you want, but be certain to add an equal amount of carbon-bearing material at the same time.
Myth: My husband, wife, son, or daughter won't let me put citrus in my compost pile.
Truth: In every life there comes a moment when we are called to stand strong in defense of truth, integrity, values, and honesty, no matter who may be challenging our principles or tempting us to infidelity. This is not that moment. But just for practice tell 'em to buzz off and get their own darn pile.
Tyler


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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Composting: Not All That Flies is Fruit Flies

I have recently received several e-mails and comments about fruit flies in the compost pile, and have had several clients asking about the same issue.

Fruit flies can certainly crop up in the compost pile, and you can look here at a previous post for some tips on controlling them, but more often than not the issue is not fruit flies, but a little critter called the Fungus Gnat.

I wish they had a different name, because there is something about "Fungus Gnat" that seems to cause immediate panic and loathing in those who hear it for the first time: clients generally repeat "Fungus gnats!" in a tone of voice that I think more properly reserved for discovering that one's compost pile is infested with, say, zombies, or crocodiles, or possibly flesh-eating bacteria. Butterflies, which cause far more garden damage than ever dreamed of by the lowly fungus gnat, are met with coos and smiles and calls to the children to "come see the pretty butterfly," while the announcement of fungus gnats is invariably greeted with, "how do I annihilate them and all their descendants unto the seventh generation?"

But I digress.

Fungus gnats are slimmer than fruit flies, very small with black bodies and tiny, generally silvery wings. In the compost pile, you'll often see them clustering on the surface of the pile, and sometimes running on the container surfaces. They are attracted to moisture and rotting material, which explains their presence in the compost pile.

They cause no damage to the compost, or to humans, and are strictly a nuisance rather than a problem. As with most insect problems in the compost pile, the truly effective solution is to turn the pile frequently. You could eliminate them from your compost by letting the pile dry out, or by spraying toxic chemicals, but neither of these comports with the successful production of useful compost. Frequent turning will somewhat disrupt their life cycle, and just generally make life a bit rough on them.

I have been told that the use of coffee grounds in the compost pile will greatly reduce or eliminate the presence of fungus gnats, but I know of no scientific literature that verifies the claim. On the other hand, coffee grounds are great for compost, I use lots of them, and I rarely have much of an issue with fungus gnats, so there may be something to it.

So, if you have fungus gnats, turn the pile frequently, don't even think about spraying anything, try using coffee grounds, and be thankful you don't have zombies.

Tyler


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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From the Inbox: Melons

From a Correspondent:

I noticed on the Maricopa vegetable calendar that melons should be planted in March from seed. Since I've never grown them before, I'm wondering what conditions they need: lots of water; mulched soil; partial shade or direct sun; protection from bunnies?
Kristen in Carefree
Kristen, I'm glad you asked.

I haven't grown melons in a couple of years, and this year I'm making up for lost time. Here at The Ranch, this will be, you might say, the Year of the Melon.

In the Desert Garden, Cantaloupe and Muskmelons can be planted from seed now through the end of July; watermelons from now until mid-April. All melons need plentiful Sun, so they are star perfomers in the desert, and with a little care the Summer extremes won't faze them.

Prepare a seed bed of deep rich soil; that's another way of saying dig in plenty of compost or manure. If you use manure, be sure to wait a week or so before planting.

Shape the bed as a basin, pulling soil to the side to provide a wide sunken area. In that sunken area is where you'll plant your seeds. The "walls" that you form by pulling the soil to the edges will allow you to flood the planting area, providing the deep and even water that melons need.

Be certain to use some netting to protect the sprouting seeds from avian predation, and once the plants are up and growing, use a thick layer of an organic mulch to cut down on evaporation and to help maintain even water levels. If you have a rabbit problem, do fence the area to forestall damage.

Melons of all types tend to sprawl and take up valuable acreage in the garden. My favorite method for getting around this is to use trellises. Use a sturdy trellis, anchor it over the planting area, and then guide the growing vines up and onto it. As the melons begin to form, they'll be heavy and will pull the vines off the trellis, so make cloth slings – old t-shirts or used (but clean) diapers work perfectly – to cradle each fruit, tying the sling to the trellis; this is why we use a sturdy trellis. Not only will trellised melons take up less space, but they also lead to less insect damage and will protect the fruit from the rot that can result from soil contact. As you might imagine, the smaller melon varieties are a bit better for this method.

As the weather heats up, you will notice that your melon leaves will wilt and fold in the mid-day sun. Don't panic. Check under your mulch: if the soil is still moist and you've been watering deeply, don't water yet; if the soil is dry, water right away. The wilting leaves help the melon cope with the hot Sun and over-watering in response can lead to root rots and failed plants.

As the plants get near to harvest time, back off the water slightly; over-watering in the last week will result in poor flavor.

I hope this helps,

Tyler


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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

From the Inbox: No-turn Composting

From a Correspondent:

What if I'm composting in a bin with no doors at the bottom? Is there anything I can do to keep the compost looking good? Can I get good quality compost by just leaving it in the bin for about a year?
Glenda

Hi Glenda,
I hate to be the one to break this to you, so I'll get the answer to your last question over quickly, so it will hurt less:

No.

While you might eventually get some usable material from a static (unturned) pile, the odds are against it. Because the Desert Garden is so dry for much of the year, it's difficult to maintain a static pile that has the conditions necessary for the breakdown of the organic material into usable compost.

If you don't turn and don't water, then you eventually get a pile full of dried-out plant material. If you do water, but don't turn, much of the water will flow to the bottom of the pile and you will end up with dried plants on top, and anaerobically decayed plant material on the bottom (think black smelly slime).

The doors at the bottom of some commercially made composters are useful only for turning over the pile. Contrary to the advertising, we really can't just put stuff in the top and then take it out the bottom doors as compost – at least not here in the desert. So, if you don't have little doors, don't worry: you're not missing out.

What you will need is a way to turn the pile. If your compost bin is small and light, then simply lift the bin off the pile, set it to one side, then turn the compost into the bin using a spading fork; this is the easiest method. If you can't lift the bin itself, then use your spading fork to turn the compost within the pile, or to turn it from one bin to another; a double- or triple-bin system is really the easiest way to manage your pile once you really get going with composting.

At the end of the day, the key to composting in the Desert Garden is to remember the four necessary ingredients of composting: carbon, nitrogen, water, and air. If what you're doing doesn't get these four ingredients to all parts of the pile at all times, then it won't work.

I hope this helps,

Tyler


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Friday, February 27, 2009

From the Inbox: Sweet Peas

In response to an earlier post, Kim left a comment asking when I planted my Sweet Peas here at the Ranch, and if it's too late to plant Sweet Peas now (at the end of February).

Kim, good morning. I planted my Sweet Peas in 1999, but not to worry: you still have time (but just barely).

One of the great gardening surprises of the Desert Garden is that this most beloved of cottage-garden flowers will thrive here, and not only thrive, but given the chance will re-seed and come back year after year. I planted Sweet Peas here at the Ranch in the Autumn of 1999, and they've come back every year since, wandering around the landscape and sprouting wherever they find a congenial patch of soil and sufficient water.

We plant Sweet Peas in the same season we plant the edible, or English, garden pea: late September through the end of February. Peas, both Sweet and English, are cool-season plants, meaning they germinate and start their growth in the Autumn, Winter, and early Spring. Depending on the weather in a given year, either end of that planting season may be lengthened or shortened; if you still want to try Sweet Peas for this year, plant now, or forever hold your peas (OK, not forever, but at least until early October).

The growing and blooming season is short, so look for short-season and early-blooming varieties to plant. There's no need for the elaborate digging and trenching regimes of traditional Sweet Pea planting; just dig in a good amount of compost or other organic matter, plant your peas, and provide the little guys something to climb on. There's a chance that this late in the season they will fail to germinate, but don't worry about that: the seeds will just hang out in the soil all Summer and then start growing in the more comfortable Autumn weather.

Whenever your Sweet Peas sprout and flower, the keys to keeping the blossom going for a long period are to not let them wilt from lack of water, and to pick the blooms daily. Snip them with scissors, leaving a long stem, and place the blossoms in a small vase indoors. Or, better yet, pick small bouquets and give them to your neighbors. As soon as the flowers begin setting seed in the garden, the plant will begin to stop blooming.

That's why I've had volunteer Sweet Peas here at the Ranch for 10 years; at a certain point each season the flowers just get beyond me and I let them go to seed. The pods ripen and explode, flinging seed around the garden, and settling in to grow again in the Fall. It's a bit chaotic, but all chaos should smell so sweet.

Tyler


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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Back at the Ranch: Apple Blossom Time

Apple Blossom ©Tyler Storey

Also, lime-blossom time, lemon-blossom time, peach, apricot, plum, rose, petunia, sweet pea, Senna, penstemon, and a whole lot of other blossom time.

This morning, standing in the middle of the rear yard here at the Ranch, the landscape was literally buzzing with the activity of honey bees and hummingbirds. For sheer floral display, scent, and hyper-frenetic activity, no Mardi Gras celebration can hold a candle to Shrove Tuesday in the Desert Garden. No bead-throwing, but the honey bees are scattering citrus blossoms everywhere.

This is the first of the year's major nectar flows, and all the bees and hummingbirds take advantage of the bounty. It is also the most important part of the year for the gardener cultivating tree fruits. Most of our citrus trees, and all of our deciduous fruit trees – apple, plum, apricot, peach – bloom only once a year. The blossoms pollinated right now become the fruits we harvest in the coming months; no pollination, no fruit.

That gives us each a special responsibility at this time of year: don't spray anything bad in your yard.

If you normally use systemic insecticides on your roses, fast-acting weed-killers in your yard, bug spray around your home, weed and feed in your turf, or anything similar, now is the time to take a break. At this time of year, anything you spray anywhere will end up in the bees and the butterflies and the hummingbirds fluttering around your landscape.

In the past few years, bee populations in the United States have been devastated by unknown causes; the scientists are still figuring out why, but while they work on it, we can each do our part and decide not to poison the bees in our own little neck of the woods. And even if you don't have fruit trees, one of your neighbors does, so do it for their sake.

We'll make a deal: you give up spraying for Lent, and I'll let you eat all the chocolate you want.

Tyler


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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Back at the Ranch: Purple Cauliflower


Purple Cauliflower ©Tyler Storey

It's been a very good year for cauliflower here in this corner of the Desert Garden. Back in early Autumn, a friend and neighbor stopped by with six cauliflower plants she'd been given, and we popped them in the ground just to see what might happen.

On such happenstance are great adventures often borne.

Two of the plants are of a Romanesco type (lime green with fractal outcroppings), two are an orange cauliflower, and the last two are purple (pictured above).

One of the purple ones was the first to go, becoming lunch yesterday. After harvest it weighed in at a good pound-and-a-half, which is hefty for a cauliflower.

The purple coloration of this variety comes from the presence of anthocyanins, a water-soluble flavonoid that colors Purple Soup ©Tyler Storeyeverything from sweet violets to blackberries and beech trees; the word "anthocyanin" comes from the Greek, meaning "flower-blue." In my book, the whole point of purple cauliflower is the purple; given that the purple pigment is water soluble, it seemed best to find a cooking method that would keep as much of the color as possible: soup, of course.

Cream of cauliflower soup is easy to make. As it turns out, purple cauliflower makes a cream soup that tastes much like vichyssoise, and is colored the exact shade of blueberry yogurt.

Cauliflower is a Winter-garden vegetable, as are all the cruciferous (cabbage family) vegetables. Plant it in the Fall in rich, but not over-fertilized soil, and be certain to water in the winter dry spells. I have found that a generous amount of good compost, dug into the soil before planting, makes subsequent fertilizer unnecessary. The only significant pests are cabbage looper caterpillars, which occur in small numbers, so are easy to pick off. Harvest cauliflower when the heads are well-sized, and just before the individual florets begin to separate; cauliflower quickly becomes coarse once it passes its peak.

The variety pictured above is called "Graffiti" and retains its color when cooked. There is another variety called "Violet Queen" which is also bright purple, but fades to light green after cooking. Either is good on the crudite platter, but if you have your heart set on purple soup, go for the Graffiti. Anthocyanins are pH-sensitive, so while I didn't try this myself, I suspect that adding a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice to your soup stock would preserve more of the purple color.

Tyler


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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Citrus Month: Mexican Lime

Lime Blossom ©Tyler Storey

The picture to the left is of some Mexican Lime blossoms at night. The Mexican Lime tree here at the Ranch is fairly laden with flower buds; it's usually an early bloomer, and this year is no exception.

On the one hand, it's a welcome sight: harbingers of Spring and all that. On the other hand, it's not such good news: contrary to what we might think, it's still Winter here in the Desert Garden, and our harbingers are harbinging a little too early (there's no such word as "harbinging." I made it up. If you use it you have to smile a little bit while saying it so people will know you know better.).

While it varies by area, it's not unusual for the last frost in desert regions to arrive as late as the middle or end of February. As I write, the temperature is dropping in this corner of the Desert Garden, and we expect to have a freeze tonight.

I mentioned in my earlier post on frost hardiness that the Mexican Lime is the most frost-sensitive of the commonly grown citrus. That's a shame, because it's one of those fruits that is much better grown at home than purchased in the market.

The small green limes in the grocery, often called "bartender limes," are unripe Mexican Limes. They're small, predominantly acid in flavor, and sometimes a bit dry. A ripe, home-grown, Mexican Lime is yellow, full of juice, and has a rich and complex flavor; it is as different from its mass-market counterpart as a home-grown tomato is.

If you plant a Mexican Lime tree, choose your most-protected Winter location; that will likely be an area close to the house. Here at the Ranch, the Mexican Lime is on the North side of the house, planted very near a patio overhang. This has the double advantage of being both cool and warm. Being on the North, the area stays cooler than the surrounding landscape, so the tree isn't encouraged to break growth early with warm weather. Being near the covered patio, the tree derives some frost protection from the warm air trapped under the roof.

Buy your Mexican Lime tree from a local nursery to get the most adapted rootstock, and plant it in the Spring, after the last frost, but early enough that it has a chance to establish before Summer hits. As with all citrus, water deeply but infrequently, and fertilize gently; multiple small applications are better than one heavy application.

You can begin using the limes any time after they've grown large enough and have some juice in them, but for fully ripe and best-flavored fruit, wait until the limes have turned yellow and fall from the tree, then collect them from the ground.

I had an e-mail some years ago from a man who wanted to know why he wasn't getting any fruit from his Mexican Lime. Every year, he wrote, just when the limes were about ripe, they would fall off the tree and he'd pick them up and throw them away. Year after year after year. Don't let this happen to you: with any other citrus, a fallen fruit is a bad sign, but the Mexican Limes are supposed to fall off when they're ripe.

I'll let you know how the buds hold up to tonight's freeze; this may turn out to be a year without limes.

On a more cheerful note: tomorrow I'm posting a picture of purple soup.

Tyler


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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Actually, it's pretty easy, but it does make a mess of things.

The address for this blog, TheDesertGarden.com, has been registered with GoDaddy; in light of their recent Super Bowl ads, I had to question whether I wanted to continue to do business with them. The issue was decided for me after recent media comments from GoDaddy's CEO that pretty much amounted to a big middle-finger to any customers who might think the ads were in poor taste.

It's likely that the transfer to a new registrar will mess up access to the blog for a few days, so don't be surprised if it briefly disappears; no worries, we'll be back.

Tyler


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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Citrus Month: Don't Move Citrus!

The title of this post really says it all: don't move citrus across state lines.

There are a number of citrus disease in the world, but one in particular has been devastating citrus industries around the world: it's called Citrus Greening, it destroys citrus trees, and there is no cure.

Citrus Greening is vectored, or spread, by a minuscule insect called the Asian Citrus Psyllid. The insect has spread to Florida, and the disease is now found in 33 Florida counties, and in Louisiana. The insect has also now been found in California, Mexico, and other citrus-growing states.

The only way to prevent its spread is to not move trees. I know it's hard to believe, but all it takes is one tree, or even one green leaf, to spread the insect and disease to a new area and destroy a new region of American citrus.

If you live in a citrus-growing region, then there is a nursery somewhere near you that can provide all the citrus trees you could possibly want; that free tree from your brother in California, or that rare variety you found on your road-trip to Florida, simply aren't worth it.

Buy your citrus trees locally. If you can't find a local supplier for that special tree you have your heart set on, let me know: I'll find it for you.

For more information on Citrus Greening and the importance of not moving trees, visit the USDA Citrus Crisis site at http://www.saveourcitrus.org.

Remember, the citrus you save may be your own!

Tyler


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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stop-Action Broad Bean: Episode 7

Fava and Cilantro ©Tyler Storey

We haven't visited our Broad Bean for a while now, because it literally stopped action. Of all the Broad Bean plants growing here at The Ranch, it's now clear that this one really is the runt of the litter. The next smallest of the plants is at least twice as tall as our chosen one, and many are blooming already; you may not be able to tell in the picture, but our Fava plant is smaller than the cilantro growing in front of it, an embarrassing position for a Broad Bean to find itself in.

Being interested and inquisitive and eager to learn, we of course want to know why this plant is lagging behind. And we want to know if there is any way we can fix it, or any way to avoid this problem in the future. Was it something we did or something we failed to do? Poor seed selection? bad soil preparation? lack of water? poor plant placement? lack of fertilizer? fire? flood? frost?

Fava Flower at Dusk ©Tyler StoreyBut this particular plant is growing in the company of a bunch of other plants, all of which are doing just fine.

Which eventually leads us to the truth that plants, being living things, sometimes just don't do well, or don't do well according to our expectations, no matter how hard we try. Our job in the garden is simply and always to do our best; the eventual outcome is beyond our control.

In the meanwhile, here's a photo of a Broad Bean flower from one of the other nearby plants; it's a very pretty flower, isn't it?

Tyler


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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Back at the Ranch: Cauliflower Caterpillars

Caterpillar on Cauliflower Leaf ©Tyler Storey

One of the benefits of Winter vegetable gardening is the reduced level of pests. Even the intermittent cold periods are too much for most insects and other critters, and with luck we can come through the season with limited insect damage. But there are always a few hardy fellows who buck the trend, and it's worth keeping an eye out for these guys.

I noticed a few holes in the leaves of one of the cauliflower plants the other day; clearly a caterpillar was at work. It took about 2 seconds to track him down. You will almost always find caterpillars on the back or underside of a leaf, and sure enough, as I turned over the leaf, there he was, looking rather fat and contented.

Sometimes you have to do a little more tracking to find the culprit, so keep these tips in mind:

  • if there are little holes and big holes, look behind the big holes; the little holes were earlier meals from the smaller caterpillar;
  • if there are holes with tan or dry edges, and holes with fresh green edges, look behind the fresh ones. In the photo, look at the edges of the hole to the left of the caterpillar and notice the thin, dark edge of the hole (click to enlarge); that's the tell-tale sign of fresh eating;
  • and, if you don't find the caterpillar on the leaf, look carefully along the leaf stem or rib; a caterpillar will blend right in with the stem.

If this were Spring and you had a heavy infestation, you might spray with BT, an organic caterpillar-killer. But with one or two caterpillars in Winter, don't bother; just pick them off and toss them onto the nearest walkway. The birds will appreciate the treat.
Tyler


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Citrus Month: Spontaneous Lemon Destruction?

I received the following question from a correspondent in Phoenix, Arizona:

We had a very large, lemon-laden branch spontaneously break off our tree. I have attached photos. It looks a little diseased to me. How should we proceed?
Tim
Hi Tim,
The first thing to do is pick and use the fruits from the fallen branch; they're ripe enough and perfectly usable. From the look of the branch in the picture you sent, I think you could get almost a dozen lemon meringue pies out of it. Remember to beat the meringue until just glossy.

Your next immediate concern is to prevent consequent damage to the bark and trunk of the tree, and I'll get to that; first, though, let's take a look at what really happened. While it certainly looks like the branch broke "spontaneously," you might be surprised to learn how long that spontaneity had been in the making.

It's not unusual to see heavily laden lemon branches breaking in Phoenix about now; yet another result of the Great Freeze of 2007. The entire Phoenix area had three days of hard freezes in a row just about two years ago. One of the consequences was that most lemon trees in the area lost varying degrees of new growth, and almost all of them lost their new forming flower buds; the "bud wood." As a result, few gardeners had much in the way of a lemon crop in the Winter of 2007-2008; the fruit had been literally nipped in the bud.

Many citrus, lemon included, have at least a slight tendency towards alternate bearing, meaning they might bear fruit heavily in one year and more lightly the next. Because very few of the Phoenix-area lemon trees had any fruit at all last year, many of them made up for it with extra-heavy crops this year. Those extra-heavy crops have been ripening and gaining in weight over the last several months, and as the weight gets greater, it starts to tell against any structural weakness in the tree. At a certain point: snap!

Broken Lemon ©Tyler StoreyIt looks to me that the structural weakness in your tree was of pretty long standing. I took one of the pictures you sent, enlarged it, and added some arrows so we can look at what happened. You might want to click on the preview picture above for the larger view, so you can follow along.

If you look at the red arrow, it's pointing to a partially broken branch headed off to the left; we can tell by the color of the split wood and the "expansion joint" in the bark that it happened some time ago. That pattern of splintered wood is characteristic of bent and broken citrus limbs.

Now look at the area to which the blue arrow is pointing; it has that same characteristic splintered and weathered wood as at the red arrow. And, just to be certain, notice the yellow arrow; it's pointing to the branch above the new break, and you'll notice that branch is horizontal; it's a larger and older example of the pattern we see at the branch with the red arrow.

And, last, look at the area of fresh wood exposed by the new break; the top portion is U-shaped, with the area at the blue arrow extending down into the U, and the portion that recently broke off was very superficial; in other words, the branch broke off and just peeled the bark and a little wood, rather than splitting the limb in half.

OK, you've been very patient. Now we put it all together:

Some time ago, possibly years ago, the branch that the yellow arrow is pointing to bent over and partially splintered. In response, a bud in the bark, just below the bend, started growing and it grew into an upright and fairly large branch. Because it grew from what we call an "adventitious bud" on the surface of the bark, it wasn't very strongly attached; it's anchor wasn't in the wood, as it were.

This new branch continued to get bigger and branched out and then, because of the heavy crop that resulted from the Great Phoenix Freeze of 2007, it finally got too heavy for its weak attachment and down it came, peeling the bark as it went. What looks like rot in the center is just weathered wood and an accumulation of air-borne dust that gathered in the acute angle between the two branches.

So what do you do now? After you've finished your lemon meringue pie baking, your greatest concern will be preventing sun damage to the bark and trunk, especially if the break is on the West or South side of the tree.

Citrus trees have very thin bark – it's more like skin. When a citrus breaks or is pruned, the previously shaded area of bark is suddenly exposed to the intense Desert sun. The bark "burns" and dies and that causes more problems than the original break, possibly even killing the tree.

Your next step is to shade all of the newly exposed bark, from above the break all the way down to the ground. You can either rig a covering of low-percentage shade cloth, or paint the trunk with a water-based citrus paint.

If you choose paint, I recommend that you buy the "bark-colored" variety. It's a personal opinion, but I think the white paint looks odd, and you will have to repaint in future years to keep it from looking shabby. If you use the tan paint, you need only paint once, and as the tree grows, the new tissue that expands through the paint will be tougher and won't need re-painting. Ideally we don't paint exposed wood, but in this case it's probably best for the tree.

I hope this helps,

Tyler


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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Citrus Month: Arizona Citrus Clinics

For those of you in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, the end of January brings two of the best citrus events in the country. Held every year, the University of Arizona Maricopa County Master Gardener Citrus Clinics are a terrific opportunity to learn everything you could possibly want to know about growing and caring for citrus in the desert.

The East Valley Citrus Clinic will be held Saturday, January 24th at Greenfield Citrus Nursery in Mesa. (Greenfield is the finest citrus nursery in the country, and even if you just wander around, it's worth the visit.). The West Valley Clinic will be held the following weekend, Saturday, January 31st, at the University of Arizona Citrus Agricultural Center in Waddell. The Citrus Ag Center is also a great place to visit and they always have something interesting growing on the grounds.

The clinics open at 8:30a.m. and the programs get under way at 9 o'clock, with six programs repeating until noon.

Tickets are $8.00 in advance, $10.00 at the gate, and worth every penny.

For more information on the topics covered, for tickets, and for directions and other information, visit the Maricopa County Master Gardener Web site.

Tyler


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Citrus Month: Candied Minneola Tangelo Peel

Candied Minneola Peel ©Tyler Storey

As I mentioned in my previous post on Minneola Tangelos, the Minneola peel makes an excellent candied peel, especially useful in baking and in desserts. In my ongoing efforts to make it easier to actually eat all this stuff in your Desert Garden, here's the recipe for making the peel. It ends up with a flavor and texture almost identical to those candy orange slices, but better, of course. The recipe takes about two days to complete, but most of that time is cooling time; the actual preparation time is pretty short.

Candied Minneola Tangelo Peel
Makes a variable amount

Ingredients:
Minneola Tangelos fresh from your garden
Sugar
Baker's sugar (optional)

Equipment
Citrus juicer, stockpot with lid, wooden spoon, colander, measuring cups, sharp knife, metal spoon, cooling racks

The first step in making the peel is to invite your friends and neighbors over for breakfast, and serve them fresh-squeezed Minneola juice. The juice is excellent, but develops an off flavor if stored in the refrigerator more than a day. If you want to make any quantity of peel, you'll need lots of juiced fruit, so you may as well share it with friends.

Pick as many tangelos as you'll need to serve fresh juice to your guests; plan on a minimum of two per guest if you use little juice glasses. Tangelos don't detach easily from the tree, so use scissors or clippers to clip them off the stem. Rinse the tangelos under cold water to remove any dust, gently using a soft vegetable brush, if necessary.

Cut each tangelo in two and juice it; an electric juicer is easier, but not necessary. You'll notice one of the great advantages to the Minneola: the inside membrane is very loose and will fall free of the rind. Reserve the juice for drinking, discard the inner membrane and juicer pulp in your compost container, and place the empty halves of each tangelo in the stockpot, adding cold water to cover.

Set the covered stockpot to boil over moderately high heat; when it reaches a full boil, remove it from the heat and set aside, still covered, for an hour or two, until it has somewhat cooled and the rinds have mostly sunk in the water. Drain the peels, discard the water (you can put it on the compost pile), and wash and rinse the stock pot.

Use a spoon to scrape away any remaining fibers that cling to the stem end of each rind, and the softest part of the pith; don't worry about removing it all, it will become part of the finished peel.

Next, cut each half in half again, cutting out and discarding any stems, then cut each piece into lengthwise quarter- to half-inch strips. Return the strips to the washed stockpot and measure in enough fresh water to just barely cover.

Add one-half cup of white sugar for each cup of water, and stir to dissolve. Return the pan to the stove and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring once or twice. When it reaches a full boil, remove it from the heat and set aside, uncovered, overnight or until completely cooled.

Return the pan to the stove over moderate heat, add the same amount of sugar (one half-cup for each original cup of water), and bring again to a boil, stirring occasionally. At the full boil, remove the pan from the heat and set aside uncovered, again until cool.

Once again return the pan to the stove, this time adding one quarter-cup sugar for each original cup of water, and again bring to a boil. By this point the syrup should be somewhat thick, and the peel translucent. If not, lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes, stirring a few times, until the peel is translucent. Remove from the heat and let the peel cool briefly.

Put some white sugar or baker's sugar in a small, wide bowl, and place some paper towels under your cooling racks. Drain the peel in a colander, reserving the syrup.

Pick up a few pieces of still-warm peel at a time and toss them with the sugar in the bowl, coating every surface, then place them on the racks to dry. Repeat with the balance of the peel.

Let the peel dry overnight in a warm, dry place, then seal them in labelled plastic bags, or a glass jar; stored in the refrigerator, it will last indefinitely.

Tips:
  • Make it easier on yourself and don't try to scrape all the pith out of the blanched peel; removing only the soft mushy part will leave you with a better end product.
  • Don't add all the sugar in the first boiling or the peel will be tough; the idea is to permeate the peel tissues with an increasing sugar concentration.
  • Taste a (cooled) piece of peel after the last boil. If it's not sugared all the way through, add more sugar and repeat the boil/cool one more time.
  • Don't let the peel boil for more than a minute; Minneola peel is a delicate flavor, and it will end up with an unpleasant "cooked" flavor if boiled too long.
  • The final syrup will have too much retained citrus oil to use for anything else, but you can put it on your compost pile as a carbon source.
  • What do you mean you "don't have a compost pile"?

Use the candied peel, chopped, in any recipe that calls for candied orange or lemon peel, or in place of raisins. Seriously: raisins.

Tyler


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Monday, January 12, 2009

Citrus Month: Minneola Tangelo

Minneola Tangelo ©Tyler Storey

The Minneola Tangelo is one of the finest citrus fruits for the Desert Garden, and probably not planted as often as it should be. A cross between a mandarin and a grapefruit, the Minneola is essentially a large mandarin that grows in clusters like grapefruit and has all of the fine flavor of the best tangerines, in a larger fruit with fewer seeds.

The Minneola tree is reliably hardy and a strong producer, tending towards alternate bearing when young, but then often leveling out. The fruit is easily peeled and excellent eaten fresh, but also makes the best orange juice (think fresh-squeezed Tang, just like the astronauts drink!) and the very best candied citrus peel. It's also among the most expensive citrus fruits to buy fresh at the grocery.

Most nurseries or guide books will tell you that the Minneola requires cross-pollination from a mandarin orange.

When I planted the Minneola here at The Ranch some years ago, I dutifully installed a Kinnow Mandarin to ensure a bounteous harvest. One morning a few months later I walked to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper and something seemed different, something – somehow – was missing.

It took me a ridiculously long time to realize that what was missing was the Kinnow Mandarin tree that I should have been standing next to. In its place was but an empty hole full of broken roots. I followed the trail of dirt where the tree had been dragged down the street and around the corner, the trail abruptly ending at a tidy line of soil where the Kinnow had clearly been hoisted onto the tailgate of the waiting getaway truck. I had visions of doors slamming and tires squealing as the villains peeled off down the street on their way to . . . . Well, to what exactly I wasn't sure.

There are mysteries in gardening, but the one thing that is definitely not a mystery is what happens to a mandarin tree when it's pulled out by its roots at the end of June in the desert, dragged on the pavement for a block and then driven around in the back of a truck. It dies.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the Minneola tree here at The Ranch has never had a dedicated pollinator and still produces a very heavy crop every year; there are lemon, Seville orange, lime and a neighbor's sweet orange nearby; these may make the difference.

The Minneola fruit ripens late in the season; the fruit is good now and will improve over the next month. When harvesting, kind of heft the fruit in your hand; if it feels heavy for its size, it's ready to pick. The best place to store your Minneolas is on the tree, so pick them as you use them; as with any citrus, they don't improve or ripen off the tree. They will gain in sweetness later in the season.

Minneolas are subject to fruit-splitting if the water is irregular throughout the growing and ripening season. For the healthiest tree and best fruit, water deeply – to a depth of three feet, and as wide as the canopy – and infrequently.

Your best method is to build a watering basin as wide as the canopy, placing a ring of soil on top of the existing soil line; build a smaller ring to keep the water away from the trunk. We commonly see citrus planted in the bottom of a watering well, but this is incorrect in the home garden and will restrict proper root growth. If you water deeply each time, you shouldn't have to water more often than every two weeks, even in June and July; if you see the leaves curling more than usual or wilting at all, then water more frequently, but always to the same depth.
Tyler


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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Italian Stone Pine: A Big Tree for a Small Space?

In response to my earlier post on Italian Stone Pines, I received the following question from a reader in Allen, Texas, just outside of Dallas:

Just saw your blog re: Pinus pinea. I bought one (small) tree from a nursery over the Christmas season. It is currently outdoors in a medium-size pot. Can I plant it outdoors, but keep it pruned so it doesn't get to full maturity? I’m just not sure we have a good spot for it to reach that size. The width is what I am more concerned about. Is there a way to keep it in a container, or more "dwarf" sized like a spruce? I wouldn't mind some height but it wouldn't be practical for the width to be even 20 ft probably. Karla
Good morning Karla,
For the sake of a clear conscience, I have to repeat the cardinal rule for planting trees: never plant a tree that has the potential to grow too large for the space in which you are planting it. From your question, I'm pretty sure you already knew that, but I had to repeat it.

OK, now on to your question.

If you don't have the space for the mature tree, then I would recommend that you try to keep it in a large pot. If you plant it out into the ground, you will be in a constant battle to reduce its size and limit its growth. In the ground, the roots will grow unfettered, and that will push the top growth. Then you're stuck with a tree that is trying to grow big while you're trying to keep it small; the end result is generally not too attractive.

If you put the tree in a large pot instead, you have a better chance of controlling the growth and ending up with an attractive tree – perhaps even something like a large bonsai. In a pot, it's fairly easy to keep a tree small, because its root space will be restricted and that will have a definite dwarfing effect on the tree. Then you can do some minimal shaping in order to balance the size of the top against the size of the roots.

When you get to the point of pruning the tree – and start early, so it doesn't get away from you – keep in mind that pruning pines is unlike pruning almost any other plant. With most trees, if you cut back a branch it will re-sprout from a bud near the pruning cut. Pines, though, have only one growing tip per branch; if you cut off this growing point, the twig or branch will die back all the way to its point of origin.

With pines, we prune the branches before they even form. Each Spring, you will see the new "candles" forming on the pine tree; that's what we call the expanding buds. When you want to limit growth along a particular branch, you pinch back that candle when the needles first start to expand out of it. You can pinch it a little, half-way, or all the way back; how far you pinch is how far you will limit the growth, and that's where the new growth buds will form.

Now you can see why it's impractical to prune an Italian Stone Pine to limit its width: you'd be up in the sky on a ladder each Spring pinching back 47,000 candles, and I suspect that living in a major metropolitan area you can find better ways to spend your time.

So, plant your tree in a large pot with a good soil-based potting mix, and pinch it back to maintain a decent size and shape, and you'll probably end up with a very nice tree. As with all potted plants, be certain that the irrigation water is going through the soil, and not down the edges of the root ball, and never let it sit in a saucer of standing water.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Friday, January 9, 2009

Winter Tomato Protection

The following note from a Phoenix, Arizona, correspondent was signed "The Duchess of Windsor." I have my doubts, but then you don't mess with anyone crazy enough to grow tomatoes in the middle of Winter:

Although I have never grown tomatoes before as a fall crop, something came over me in September and I bought 2 large tomato plants (Early Girl & Champion). They had a blooming frenzy in October and between them are now loaded with at least 100 tomatoes that are trying to ripen. They are very low, compact, partially hang only inches above a brick patio and have had frost cloth every night since the late December chill (on advice from Baker Nursery). Is there anything else I can do to nurse them along?
Your Grace,
As you're discovering, it's a challenge bordering on impossibility to grow and ripen tomatoes in the deep cold of the Desert winter. Tomatoes are firmly tropical plants, and of the closely related eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, tomatoes are the least hardy. That having been said, I always applaud experimentation in the garden, and we don't ever know if we don't at least try.

You can keep them alive with some effort, but we simply don't have the heat and sunlight to ripen the fruit. Frost cloth over compact plants next to a brick patio sounds like the ideal micro-climate, though you want to be certain to remove the cloth during the warm and sunny days, replacing it again at night. The more heat and sunlight the plants get, the more likely the fruit is to ripen.

For a little added protection, you might consider placing one or two light bulbs under the frost cloth, for added heat on cold nights. Be certain to use outdoor-rated cords and fixtures, and don't get the bulbs so close to the plants that they might burn them.

Your second option is to find a good recipe for fried green tomatoes; I used to make those a lot when I lived in Washington, D.C., they go particularly well with catfish and cornbread, and it's an excellent way to use up all the bacon grease in that little container on the back of your stove.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Citrus Month: Frost Hardiness

Frosted Lime ©Tyler Storey

Citrus trees vary in their frost-hardiness, and even a few degrees makes a difference. Some of the citrus trees most commonly grown in the Desert Garden, listed from most hardy to least hardy:

Kumquat
Sour Orange
Tangelos
Mandarin Orange
Grapefruit
Sweet Orange
Lemons
Limes

Almost exactly two years ago, Arizona's Maricopa County experienced two or three days of killing freezes that reminded us of exactly how devastating a freeze can be. It was also an interesting demonstration of how much the different citrus trees can vary in their hardiness, and how location can make a difference.

But first things first: "hardiness" and "hardy" always refer to a tree or plant's ability to withstand cold and freezing temperatures. You'll sometimes hear the word misused in describing a plant's ability to withstand difficult growing conditions such as heat, drought, wind, poor soil, or general neglect, but, to be accurate, "hardy" refers only to frost-resistance. For a plant that has good performance under bad conditions, use the word "tough" instead; the plant will appreciate the compliment.

In the Great Freeze of 2007, just the citrus here at The Ranch provided a good illustration of differing hardiness.

After two nights of prolonged freezing temperatures, the Seville Orange trees looked a little off color, but suffered no fruit or foliage damage. The Minneola Tangelo lost tips on a number of leaves, but suffered no fruit or wood damage.

The lemon tree lost all of its fruit on the outer areas of the tree canopy, lost all of its flower buds, a few small twigs, and most of the leaves showed some frost damage. The Mexican Lime lost all of its flower buds, most of its leaves, and most of the branches above a certain point were frozen through and subsequently died; it was a mess (that's the lime tree pictured above).

If you look carefully at the photo, you'll notice that the lime tree is planted right next to a covered patio; that patio cover probably saved its life. The patio stayed just a couple of degrees warmer than the surrounding area, and the foliage and wood nearest that warmer air suffered no damage at all; that was also the only part of the tree that produced fruit later that year.

When you plant citrus, pay attention to the micro-climates in your landscape – those areas that are just a bit warmer or colder than the rest of the landscape. Plant the least-hardy citrus, such as limes and lemons, in the warmer and more protected areas. When your citrus are smaller, you can use frost cloth to protect them from damage, but all except the dwarf varieties will eventually grow too large to cover easily; planting them in the right place to begin with will make all the difference.

Tyler


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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

From the Inbox: Seville Oranges in Boston

In response to my recipe for Seville Orange Marmalade, I received the following note from a reader in Boston, Massachusetts:

Your recipe for marmalade sounds great! Any idea where or how I can get a hold of Seville Oranges in the Boston area? Can I buy them mail order? Many, many thanks for your advice.
Carrie
Good morning Carrie,
It is part of the strangeness of life that what we don't appreciate in its abundance at home is so often highly desirable to those who have none.

Literally tons of despised and unwanted Seville Oranges rot in the gardens and landscapes of the Southwest while cooks in other climes would pay a premium to get their hands on them. I feel much the same way about rhubarb; I love rhubarb and it's practically impossible to grow in my corner of the Desert Garden, while my friends and relations in the rhubarb-growing parts of the world simply despise the stuff.

But, on to your question.

It's been years since I have visited markets in Boston, but if you want to try to find Seville Oranges locally, I would check out some of the "ethnic" food markets, especially Cuban, Salvadoran, Southern Mexican, or Southeast Asian markets. Better yet, head down to the weekend Haymarket Square produce market and look around. Seville Oranges look a lot like sweet oranges, so you may need to ask questions. This is peak season for the Seville Orange, so if a vendor doesn't have them to hand they may be able to get them in for you.

The only mail-order I know of for Seville Oranges is Rising C Ranches in California; their web address is ripetoyou.com. I have never done business with them and know nothing about the quality of their product or service, but they do list Seville Oranges as one of the products they will ship.

I hope this helps,
Tyler


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Monday, January 5, 2009

Citrus Month: Yucatecan Pork Lomitos

As I mentioned in my earlier post on Seville Oranges, the tree has become naturalized around the Caribbean Basin and the Gulf of Mexico, and has become a distinctive part of the regions' cuisines. The following recipe for pork lomitos is typical of a Yucatecan recipe using the Seville Orange. It's a good recipe for an inexpensive cut of pork, and is very good just served with tortillas on the side. It's become one of my favorites because, A) it uses ingredients from the garden, 2) it's very easy, and B) your guests will think it's more complicated than it is – this is how reputations are made.

Yucatecan Lomitos with Seville Orange
Serves about 6

Ingredients:
  • 1 TBSP Recado Rojo or Achiote seasoning (this comes in little cubes and you can find it at any Mexican market)
  • juice of one Seville Orange
  • 2 pounds boneless pork, country ribs will work, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • about 2 TBSP olive or other cooking oil
  • 3/4 pound of tomatoes, chopped but not peeled
  • 1 small green pepper, chopped
  • 1 small chile poblano, chopped
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 head of garlic, unpeeled
  • 1 chile habanero, jalapeno, or other green hot chile
  • water

Dissolve the recado rojo in the orange juice, and mix with the pork in a bowl; set aside to marinate for about a half-hour. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan or large skillet, and fry the tomato, pepper, poblano chile and onion together over high heat, scraping and stirring for about 10 minutes. Sprinkle on the salt and leave to simmer on low.

Toast the whole garlic over high heat in a frying pan or griddle until it's well-browned on the outside, then toast the hot chile.

Add the meat and it's marinade to the saucepan with the tomato mixture, and add about 2 cups of water, to barely cover. Squeeze the toasted garlic cloves from their skins and add it to the pot along with the toasted chile, and bring it all to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about an hour, or until the meat is tender. If the sauce is watery, turn up the heat to reduce it quickly.

Serve the lomitos hot, with tortillas. If you're not expecting guests, eat it right out of the pan; it saves on the washing-up.

Tyler


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Citrus Month: Seville Orange Marmalade Recipe

Seville Orange Marmalade ©Tyler Storey

As a follow-up to my previous post about Seville Oranges, here's a recipe for using the fruit. The Seville Orange is generally at its peak around the end of January; look for the fruit to be somewhat heavy, though it won't ever be as juicy as a Valencia or Navel orange. Pick firm, well-colored fruit with fairly tight and undamaged skins. Even on a single tree, some Seville Oranges will be rough and pebbly, while others will be smooth; this won't make any difference in their use.

The recipe may look complicated on paper, but it's really pretty simple.

Traditional Seville Orange Marmalade
Makes six 1-lb jars

Ingredients:
  • 2 lbs Seville oranges, plus one more orange
  • 4 lbs granulated sugar
  • 4 pints water
Equipment:
  • a large, heavy-based saucepan or stockpot
  • a 10-inch square of muslin and some string, or a jelly bag
  • two china saucers
  • a funnel and a ladle
  • six 1 lb canning jars, sterilized, and lids

First, lightly rinse the oranges to remove any dust, using a soft vegetable brush if necessary. Measure the 4 pints water into your pan, and place the muslin or jelly bag over a bowl.

Cut the oranges in half and juice them; an electric juicer is easiest, but not necessary. Add the juice to the water in the pan and place the seeds and any pith that clings to the juicer on the square of muslin or in the jelly bag. Cut the orange peel into quarters with a sharp knife, and then cut each quarter into thin shreds. Add the shreds to the water and any seeds or pith you come across go onto the muslin. The pith is very high in pectin so don't discard any and don't worry about any pith and skin that sticks to the shreds – it will get dissolved in the boiling.

Tie the seeds and pith up loosely in the muslin to form a little bag, or cinch up your jelly bag, and loop the string over the handle of the pan so that the bag is suspended in the liquid. Bring the liquid up to simmering point and adjust the heat to simmer gently, uncovered, for 2 hours or thereabouts, until the peel is completely soft (test a piece by pressing it between your fingers). Meanwhile, chill the saucers in the freezer compartment of the fridge.

Once the peel is soft, remove the bag and leave it to cool in a bowl. Pour the sugar into the pan and stir it over low heat, until it's completely dissolved. Increase the heat to very high and then squeeze the cooled bag of seeds and pith over the pan to extract all of the slimy stuff that contains the pectin. As you squeeze you'll see it ooze out. Squeeze it with your hands or between two saucers, and then strip the goo into the pan, stirring it into the sugar and peel mixture.

As soon as the mixture reaches a really fast boil, start your timer. After 15 minutes spoon a little of the marmalade on to one of the cold saucers from the freezer, and let it cool back in the fridge. You can tell – when it has cooled – if you have a "set" by pushing the mixture with your finger: if it crinkles a bit, it's set. If not, continue to boil the marmalade and give it the same test at about 10-minute intervals until it does set. If you've had it at a really fast boil, the 15 minutes should be enough.

After the marmalade is set, remove the pan from the heat and pour the marmalade into the jars, using the funnel and ladle, and seal immediately. Label when cool and store in a dry, cool, dark place.

Tips:

  • The key to this marmalade is to simmer gently for the full two hours, stirring occasionally, so that the peel is cooked through and soft; this prevents the peel from “floating” in the jar.
  • The key to getting a good “set” is to bring the mixture to a really fast rolling boil after adding the sugar, counting the 15 minutes only after it has reached the boil.
  • As you fill the jars, stir the marmalade a bit with the ladle so that each jar gets about the same amount of peel.
  • If your marmalade for some reason doesn't set, there's really only one thing you can do: label it as "sauce" instead of marmalade and use it as a glaze for pork roast and a topping for cheesecake. Never admit defeat.

Tyler


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Citrus Month: Sour or Seville Orange

Seville Orange ©Tyler Storey

The Seville Orange (Citrus aurantium), also called Sour Orange, Bitter Orange, or Bergamot Orange was at one time widely planted as a decorative tree in the Desert and other warm-climate areas, including Southern California and Florida. They're still to be found in older yards and neighborhoods, and while now often disparaged as being a waste, they're actually a useful tree with a fascinating history.

Citrus aurantium originated, and is still to be found wild, in Southeast Asia, and from there it was carried to the Arabian Peninsula. By the end of the First Millennium, it was in Europe, and for 500 years it was the only orange in the West; its common name of Seville Orange came from its intensive cultivation around Seville, in Spain. Christopher Columbus is believed to have planted the first seeds of the Seville Orange in Hispaniola in 1493, and from that and subsequent plantings the tree spread around the Caribbean and throughout all the suitable New World areas.

It is almost impossible to eat the raw fruit of the Seville Orange, a fact I verified for myself a few years back; that was a stomachache I will never forget. But cooked, or used as an ingredient, the fruit is as useful as any.

Seville Orange is the traditional source of Scottish orange marmalade (recipe here), which is both excellent and ridiculously easy to make at home; I make marmalade each Spring and give much of it away to people who either love it or are too polite to say otherwise. The fruit is widely used in Cuban, Tamil, and Yucatecan cooking (recipe here), and the juice can be used as a sort of "lemonade" when mixed with sugar and topped up with sparkling or still water. The peel is the source of several liqueurs, including CuraƧao, Grand Marnier, and Triple Sec, and can be used to make a very good candied orange peel, though you need to blanch it more than with other citrus peel.

The flowers of the Seville Orange are extremely fragrant, the most fragrant of all the citrus blossoms. Those flowers are the origin of the perfume ingredient called "Neroli oil," one of the most widely used scents in perfumery. They can also be picked and then dried in white sugar to make a scented sugar for cakes and pastries, though I've never done that myself; marmalade is one thing, but you have to draw the line somewhere. The flowers are also the traditional orange blossom of the bridal bouquet.

And last, but by no means least, even if you don't care for the Seville Orange, you may already have one and not even know it: the Sour Orange is widely used as a rootstock for grafting other citrus varieties, and is probably the best rootstock for citrus in Arizona. When folks ask me why their previously sweet orange is now bitter and inedible, 9 times out of 10 it's because the top of the plant has been damagd or overpruned and the rootstock has sprouted and replaced the grafted portion.

As a landscape plant, the Seville Orange is, once established, a moderate water user, and provides deep leafy green foliage, brilliantly fragrant Spring flowers, and decorative fruits. It tends to be low maintenance and has a very long life-span. If you're looking to plant a new citrus tree, the Seville Orange probably isn't your best choice, if only because the fresh fruit is inedible. But if you or a neighbor already have one, it's well worth keeping, using, and enjoying.

Tyler


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