Friday, January 25, 2013

A Tale of Two Trees

Tree #1: Bradford Pear
Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford' has been planted so extensively, it is a common sight throughout our region. While the spring display is pretty, it is best enjoyed from afar, as the blooms have an unpleasant, fishy odor. The biggest issue with this tree, however, is its tendency to suffer damage from storms and high winds. Once they reach about 15 years of age, they tend to break very easily, because the crotch of the tree is weakened by multiple branches arising close together. This produces a pleasing shape, but the trade off is weakness. About the only good thing you can say for this tree is that its fruits provide a food source for birds after frost softens the fruit sufficiently. But that also has a downside, as birds deposit the seeds in the woods, where the tree, native to Asia, now sometimes crowds out native species.

When we purchased our house, we had three Bradford pears arranged around the front yard. The first one came down about five years ago, during a storm that broke the top out of two other Bradfords elsewhere in the neighborhood. In another year or two, a large upper branch broke and fell from a second tree during a period of utter calm. It just snapped one day. Fortunately, no one was underneath at the time.

Last week, we began cutting down the third tree. Our logic: better to have it come down on our schedule than unexpectedly. We are almost done with the brush, the removal of which poses the greatest problem. It is always remarkable how much material even a modest-sized tree thrusts into the air. Soon, we will bring down the remainder of the trunk, which is about a foot in diameter. Good riddance.

We have planted redbud and dogwood trees in the area once dominated by the Bradford pears. Soon, they will fill in the space and we won't miss the old tree.

Meyer (left) and Lisbon lemons
Tree #2: Meyer Lemon Improved
I was presented with this dwarf citrus tree as a gift last spring, and I have watched the fruits mature during fall and winter. We've picked a total of three ripe, juicy lemons since the week after Christmas. That is the whole crop for this year, but the tree has bloomed profusely, giving hope for another crop to come.

Botanically, Meyer lemon is related to tangerines and mandarin oranges. As the image reveals, the fruit differs from the standard Lisbon lemon both in shape and color. Perfectly ripe Meyer lemons have an orange cast to the skin. The skin of the Meyer is much thinner than that of the standard lemon, with less pith. Consequently, the fruit makes excellent marmalade. They are juicy, too, about a fourth cup per fruit, or roughly twice as much as the standard lemon. I made lemon icebox pie with the zest and juice of our first two fruits, and have not yet decided what to do with this remaining specimen.

Since I had no prior experience growing Meyer lemon, I missed the proper pruning time last fall. Because the tree appeared stressed, I went ahead and pruned it back last week. It lives in the garage, in front of a south facing window, not its preferred position for the winter months. Nevertheless, I did not prune off all the blooms. It will be necessary to hand pollinate those that remain, a task I am attempting with a small artist's brush. If I succeed in the role of bee, we should have several small fruits by the time the tree can go outside again in spring. At that time, I will repot it, which should stimulate new growth.

Next fall, I plan to leave the tree outside until the nights are really cold, around 40 degrees. Temperatures below about 55 will cause the plant to enter dormancy, which, in turn, is the best time to prune, before the new blooms appear. Pruning it before bringing it in will not only make it easier to accommodate the plant indoors, but will delay blooming until after the plant has had a bit of a rest. Next winter, we will be prepared to give the tree more sun and warmth, by moving it into the living area of the house, where it should brighten up the room and perfume the air with blooms just in time for the holiday season. If we get fruit despite this year's less-than-perfect husbandry, so much the better. If not, there's always next season.

Meyer lemon is hardy to 34 degrees, and when grafted on a dwarf rootstock can remain in a container for many years, producing fruit each winter. The ideal container will hold about 10 to 15 gallons of medium. If possible, use a potting mix made specifically for citrus, but any good quality mix will do. We use Pro-Mix brand, with added calcined clay for moisture control. We used timed-release chemical fertilizer to provide for the plant's heavy nitrogen needs, but we may be able to switch to an organic source after next year, when the tree will start to grow more slowly as it becomes pot bound.

Root restriction and pruning can be used to maintain the tree at a compact size almost indefinitely, according to the references I've checked. This feature, combined with the quality of the fruit and cold hardiness, make Meyer lemon a great choice for the food gardener with limited frost-free space. The glossy, dark green foliage is decorative. Sharp thorns at the base of many leaves may rule out the plant where small children are present.

Under the stress of blooming indoors on too much wood, my tree developed an infestation of scale and aphids. Weekly spraying with insecticidal soap has kept both in check. Pruning not only reduced the stress on the tree but also removed infested branches. Here again, the downside may be failure to produce a crop this season, but that's life on the farm, no?

Greenhouse Salad and a Simple Dressing
We have enjoyed winter salads from the greenhouse perhaps more than any other homegrown crop. Fresh greens bursting with nutrients and flavor are especially welcome during the bleak winter months. It is also satisfying to have something, anything growing and green out in the garden, even if it is under a plastic roof. We have picked broccoli right through the worst weather, but in terms of the number of servings per square foot of growing space, corn salad, arugula and chervil win hands down. All three are thriving in containers in the greenhouse, and they grow, albeit slowly, despite the cold. When combined in a salad, the flavors blend to create a taste reminiscent of watercress. Refreshing, and perfect as a side with any rich comfort food. Here's a simple idea for a dressing, the idea for which appeared in the food section of the New York Times Magazine on January 20, 2013. According to the article, the dressing originated with Chef Tyler Kord of Sub No 7 in New York. I've made a couple of slight changes, but retained the basic idea of two parts acid to one part oil, a break with the traditional 1:3 ratio.

Simple Salad Dressing for Spicy Greens
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Meyer lemon juice
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt

Combine the ingredients, stirring until the salt has dissolved. Dress greens immediately before serving.

Friday, January 18, 2013


After days of almost constant rain, yesterday around lunchtime the precipitation switched to snow. Several people reported hearing thunder, also. It snowed for several hours, stopping right at sunset and giving many of us a spectacular sky to enjoy from the window. Last night, the temperature dropped to 23, the skies cleared, and this morning the first sun we have seen in days is glistening on the drifts. This was the scene out the front door this morning. It's beautiful to behold, but what a mess!

One hardly thinks of gardening when the ground is blanketed with snow, but now is the time to start seeds for the earliest crops. If you have a small area indoors with enough light, you can start leeks, onions, celery and spinach now.

Gardeners do not automatically think of growing spinach from transplants, but if you only need a small patch for fresh use, transplanting is easier than thinning. Spinach will germinate in cold soil, and will grow with the relatively low energy budget afforded by artificial lighting. Start seeds in 36-cell trays and transplant when they have two pairs of true leaves. Even though transplanting sets them back a bit, giving the young plants proper spacing from the beginning results in larger mature plants and a better overall harvest, in our experience. In good soil, the cultivar 'Bloomsdale,' long the standard around here, will produce leaves the size of ping-pong paddles.

Given its ease of culture, high nutrition levels and amenability to preservation by freezing, spinach is one of the best crops the home gardener can grow. 'Bloomsdale' does well both spring and fall. There is also a 'Winter Bloomsdale' cultivar, said to be best for overwintering in the ground. In colder areas, perhaps this would be an advantage, but 'Bloomsdale' has overwintered successfully here in Zone 6b for the past three winters.

Working With UT Gardens
We recently made a donation of hardy orchid plants to the UT Gardens. The orchids will have a new home this spring in the new shade-garden area. We are excited that our favorite perennial is finally going to be on display for visitors to enjoy. We also hope the public planting will inspire people to try this carefree plant at home. The initial planting will be of the wild type, Bletilla striata, which is pictured on our In The Garden page. We are growing several other cultivars of Bletilla, and we have pledged to add examples to the UT Gardens collection as soon as we have enough plants. These additional donations will take place over the next few years.

My personal thanks to Dr. Sue Hamilton, Director of UT Gardens, her Assistant Director, James Newbern, and Education Director Derrick Stowell. It has been a pleasure working with them all during 2012, and we look forward to continuing that great relationship in 2013.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Local Food for Carnivores

“Garden Talk” Tomorrow
Please join me as I co-host “Garden Talk” with Dr. Sue Hamilton, Director of UT Gardens, Saturday morning at 8:00 on WNOX-FM 100.3.

Local Food for Carnivores
When we discuss local food, too often we limit ourselves to the vegetables and fruits our skilled local farmers bring to the markets each season. We also have numerous local producers of foods for carnivores, not to mention the lacto- and ovo-vegetarians in the audience.

In earlier posts, I have mentioned Benton’s Smoky Mountain pork products from Madisonville. They grow and cure some of the best bacon and country ham you will ever taste, made from their heritage breed hogs.
Closer to home, in Knox County we have Strong Stock Farms, whose grass fed beef from the herd they have developed for generations is unsurpassed for flavor, based on our recent taste test. (Recipe at the end of this post.)

Over in Deer Lodge, Tennessee, West Wind Farms grows and sells beef, pork and poultry. Available frozen, as well as in the meat case at Three Rivers Market, their poultry line includes duck and Cornish hen, as well as chicken and turkey.
Here are some local growers whose products are available at Three Rivers Market and other venues around town:

  • Pastured Eggs, Pork --JEM Farm, Rogersville, TN
  • Pastured Eggs--Riverplains Farm, Strawberry Plains, TN
  • Milk--Cruze Dairy Farm, Knoxville, TN
  • Trout—Sunburst Trout Farm, Canton, NC
Regarding the last listing, if you have never had trout produced in the Smoky Mountains, you should try it. Trout is featured on the menus of several of the better restaurants in Gatlinburg. I order it when I have the opportunity. Trout are in the same family as salmon, and their flesh contains healthy fats. Mild-flavored trout is delicious simply grilled or pan fried and served with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

All these products cost more than their supermarket counterparts. We set out to try grass fed beef in one of our favorite recipes. The result convinced us the extra cost is worth it for the flavor. We try to keep our consumption of red meat low in comparison to other protein sources, so we figure an occasional splurge on some great beef is reasonable.
The recipe that follows produces some of the best meatloaf you’ll ever taste, even if you make it with supermarket ground beef. With Strong Stock Farm’s grass-fed beef, it becomes a gourmet treat worthy of a master chef. It has the perfect texture for slicing, ideal for making sandwiches from the leftovers. (If you happen to have any.)

Knoxville Meat Loaf
Time: about 1 ½ hours
Servings: 4 to 6

¼ cup oatmeal, not quick-cooking
¼ cup  V8 or tomato juice
1 teaspoon black Hawaiian sea salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon celery seed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
¼ cup minced green pepper
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef 

Combine the oatmeal and juice in a large bowl. Add the salt, pepper and celery seed. Melt the butter in a small skillet and sauté the shallot, pepper and garlic until the shallot is translucent. Add to the bowl with the other ingredients and mix well. Add the beef and mix gently with your hands until the mixture is well combined and uniform. Shape into a small loaf and bake in a preheated 350°F oven until a meat thermometer registers 165°F, or about 45 minutes to one hour. Remove from the oven and lest rest for at least 10 minutes, then slice and serve.

Friday, January 4, 2013

New Years Resolutions for Urban Homesteaders

Please join me again tomorrow morning at 8:00 on WNOX-FM 100.3 for "Garden Talk" with Dr. Sue Hamilton, Director of UT Gardens. I am filling in for the regular co-host, Andy Pulte. We will be taking phone calls from listeners, so give us a call!

Win a Free Subscription to Tennessee Gardener!
Email me with your best garden tip for 2013 and win a free one-year subscription to Tennessee Gardener. All entries must be received by January 31, 2013. A total of 3 winners will be announced in early February.

Popularity of Urban Homesteading Increasing
Our numbers are growing. Every day, as I drive around the area, I see evidence of the popularity of homegrown food and backyard farming. Gardens appear where none were last year. Tomatoes line the front walk, where petunias once bloomed. Herbs spill from fourth story balcony rails. With the launch of our Sustainable Suburbs project in 2013, we hope to introduce more people to the techniques they need to live in a saner, greener, more sustainable way, without giving up the comforts of life in the suburbs. The way we see it, suburban sprawl is a fact we will have to live with for the forseeable future. Why not encourage suburban sustainablity by all available means, whether that be conserving water with a rain garden, to replacing lawn with productive plantings, to using solar garden lighting? And the techniques that work in the suburbs can be applied to urban living, also, with appropriate modifications. For example, the urban grower will have to rely more on the farmer's market, due to limited growing space, but he or she can still take advantage of techniques like home food preservation. All it takes is the desire and a little thoughtful consideration.

The biggest impact any of us can make on our carbon footprint is to use less energy. This means not just using less heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, or limiting the number of trips we make in the car. It means we must learn to think about how our actions affect energy use on a larger scale. One of the biggest sources of energy use in our daily lives is the production, shipping and marketing of food. Every pound of food you obtain close to home is a pound that did not have to be shipped, stored or processed. Therefore, the first two resolutions we recommend are:

1. I will eat more like a hunter-gatherer.


2. I will shop more like a hunter-gatherer.

Human beings have been hunter-gatherers for about 97 percent of our time on the planet. Our bodies are designed to utilize the nutrients obtained from consuming a wide variety of fruit and vegetable foods supplemented by relatively small amounts of meat. Even if you don't grow much yourself, keeping this principle in mind should lead you to the local farmer's market, and to local producers, instead of purchasing processed foods designed for a long shelf life. The "hunter-gatherer" approach should also encourage you to utilize in-season foods. January and February are tradtionally the most difficult months to grow food, but they are great times to enjoy last season's preserved produce, and to savor storage-friendly crops like winter squash, sweet potatoes, root vegetables and nuts.

For the carnivore, slow cooked dishes featuring grass-fed meats or wild game are always appropriate for winter meals. Modern techniques are bringing pastured, all-natural or organically produced meats to virtually every urban center. We are fortunate to have several producers in the Knoxville area.

Our third resolution is meant to encourage the inexperienced to start growing food:

3. I will grow at least one thing to eat this year.

Even if you begin only with a pot of parsley, I predict you cannot limit yourself to only one crop. Pick something you use frequently and that everyone in the household eats, and grow it. In a pot or in a plot, it doesn't matter. You'll get all the great benefits of gardening with minimal expense and effort, and the satisfaction you will feel will boost your confidence as a gardener. So take the plunge.

If you are a gardener with experience, you will like our fourth resolution:

4. I will grow food more efficiently by planning better, using non-traditional garden spaces, and better succession cropping.

The bane of every food gardener is the unwanted surplus. Refine your plans so you produce what you need without too much excess. Online planning tools can be a real aid to vegetable garden design. Investigate the possibilities. Also, make arrangements early in the season to donate excess produce so you will know what to do with food you end up not needing. lists places to donate by city. Here is the link to the list for Knoxville.

And finally, remember that our planet is experiencing an extinction crisis, mostly brought on by human activities. Grow something this year that helps your local ecosystem, such as nectar plants or host plants for butterflies, or add some native wildflowers to your landscape design. That thought leads to our final resolution:

5. I will remember that I am part of the larger planetary ecosystem, and will act accordingly, as the responsible and intelligent creature that I am.

Here's hoping everyone has a great gardening year in 2013!