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.

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