Growing Lemons in Zone 5 and Other Crazy Hobbies

It is nearly time to move my citrus trees in for the winter. I have a lemon, lime and orange in pots which spend the summer outside, then move inside when it is cold. The dream is one day to get a supply of homegrown citrus. 

There's new growth on the lemon tree, and we hope it blooms this winter.

The reality is disappointing. One year we had quite a few oranges, and tremendous blossoms in January, but that was when the plants came to school with me- I had a classroom with north windows, and it wasn’t heated at night, and I think that was the perfect climate for them.  I changed schools, and my current classroom doesn’t have windows ( I wonder what they were thinking, those school building designers of the late 60’s- “I know, those kids are getting distracted by looking out the windows, so lets make it so they can’t!”) so I have to cram them into the boy’s room, which has the best south and west windows, and hope for the best. They are all three in 14 in diameter pots, and some years they bloom and produce a few fruits, but I am a looong way from self-sufficiency in citrus.

Last year I added another edible plant which won’t survive the winter here, a Chicago Hardy Fig.(    It arrived at the end of the summer, a twig smaller than a pencil with two leaves and a hefty bundle of roots.  The half  page of instructions said:  pot immediately, not let it get colder than 20, and when it went dormant bring it inside to a cool, dark place, keep it moist, but not wet, then bring it into the daylight when there was no longer risk of freezing temps. It was complicated, and made me a little nervous, but the plant made it through the winter, and is currently alive. 

A porous clay vase turns any pot into a self watering container- it holds about 1/2 gallon, and seeps into the soil slowly.

I set up a large clay pot with a porous clay vase inside- the vase holds about ½ gallon of water and slowly seeps through to the soil. While it is outside I fill it every few days.  I kept it in our guest room in the basement last winter, with the twig under a flowerpot to keep it genuinely dark, and periodically filled the vase with water.  In April, I peeked at it, and saw that there were white buds popping, so I moved it to the back porch, ready to bring it inside when frost threatened.

It has grown beautifully all summer. I didn’t expect fruit for a few years, but there are 2 tiny figs on it. It is probably 18 inches tall, and sometime in October I’ll bring it down to the basement again, to start the process again.

Pomegranates might be next on my list of impossible fruits for Colorado- what else?


Water in the west

A dusty spider web, waiting for rain.


I recently learned about  Liebig’s law,(  ) an ecological principal I wasn’t familiar with before. I always blame my lack of scientific knowledge on the fact that my junior high science teachers were ski coaches, and then I had the football coach for biology in 10th grade. By the time I got Mr. Marta in my junior year, I was already on the road to being an English major. I’ve been trying to make up for it in recent years.  Anyway, Liebig’s law is basically that whatever resource that is necessary for an organismto survive is in the shortest supply is what puts an upper limit on the carrying capacity of an environment for that organism.  For worms, it might be organic matter, for tomatoes calcium, humans on the Planet Express Ship, oxygen… in my garden, in Northern Colorado, the limiting factor is water.

I read a lot of organic gardening books, and magazines, and most of them are centered on the east coast, where wet soil is the problem. There is lots of information about drainage, and raised beds to dry out your soil faster in spring, and waterlogged roots and certain plants not liking “wet feet”

 I noticed today that there are cracks in the soil of my flagstone path. The sand that separates the pavers is falling thru to the center of the earth. There are probably cracks in the beds too, but the mulch hides them. I have run the drip system in the beds, and the sprinkler in the lawn, but I don’t water paths, so the cracks will get bigger until it rains. We had a misty day last Saturday, enough to make it cold and unpleasant for the boy’s soccer game, but it didn’t close up the cracks in the soil.

I went to Massachusetts on vacation this summer, and it rained solidly much of the time we were there. I asked landscape professional (okay, he was a tree trimmer) how much rain they averaged in that area, and he didn’t know how much rain they got. He shrugged, and looked at the other guys on his crew, and guessed about “an inch a week?”

 Around here, people tend to know , to the fraction of an inch, exactly how much moisture we’ve gotten- they’ll say “well, the weather service says half inch, but I only had three tenths in the rain gauge.”

It has not rained here for almost a month- we’ve had some scattered showers, but the soil is cracking, and the woods are burning. The fire in Boulder has made national news, my great uncle has had to evacuate his house. There was another fire near us, DH took the kids up to take pictures for the paper (link). A big pile of hay is on fire in Fort Collins, with sunny and warm in the forecast for the next week.

Mulch and compost help, and using native plants, and the Denver water board has a ton of information on dry climate planning and planting ( ) I am experimenting with a sunken bed, the opposite of raised, obviously. I have dug out about 4 inches of soil next to my horse tank, and I’m adding some compost when I put in tulips and irises. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I dug out a couple of buckets of soil, and will fill this in with compost. It's ugly now, but wait til next year...

 When I see the smoke in the air, I wonder about the future- I can drag the hose to the raspberries, and run the sprinklers to keep the trees alive.  I hope for rain, though 


Why homemade jam? Why not?

You're supposed to skim the foam off to make it prettier, but I didn't.

Our first jar almost finished- 6 days after it was made.

Even though only the girl and I are eating this stuff, we are zooming through it. Looking for excuses to put jam on stuff. You know, I could go for a piece of toast right now.

So, in a world where you can buy jam at the store, where there is a whole grocery aisle devoted to it, why bother making it at home?  I’ve been thinking this a lot lately, as I’ve been making bread, buttermilk, soup stock, lots of  stuff from scratch that my mom, for instance, never made. What do you make from scratch?

The short answer is that I enjoy it, mostly.  It feels good to have stock bubbling away in the crock pot, and then turn that stock into soup. It is kind of fun to stir fruit and watch it bubble and thicken in a pan, then spoon it into jars. 

Cost enters into it as well- buttermilk costs 4 times as much at the store as it does to add some old buttermilk to fresh milk and let it culture. Once you have started a jar, you have a lifetime supply.  I did a little research on line to see what organic raspberry jam would cost, and prices varied from $4-$9. I would never pay that much for jam.  As it is, the berries were from my garden, so free ( ha ha, if you don’t count the labor and the water…) the pectin was about $3 for 6 jars, and it was probably $2 worth of sugar. 

The quality is the last, best answer.  The reason I couldn’t find the price of raspberry chocolate jam is that no one appears to sell it. And it is reallllly good.  To make it, I add a tablespoon of  cocoa powder to the recipe on the insert of the pectin package, and follow the other directions as stated. It could probably be done with cherry or strawberry, too. Experiment.

I don’t know karate, but I’m a black belt in furoshiki

In the old days in Japan, people used to walk to the public baths- in fact, they still might, if this Shonen Knife song is any indication.  People would tie up their stuff in a bundle to take with them. Furo means bath, and shiki means bundle, and because in Japan there is an art to making everyday things beautiful, furoshiki has become an art. There are different folds, different wraps were created, beyond what I think of as a hobo bundle.

oooh, pretty tags, too

People gave gifts wrapped in fabrics, with different ties best suited to different sizes and shapes of packages.
After WWII, when paper became cheaper than it had been in Japan, and it was fashionable to lose the old style of doing things, and adhere to new, furoshiki declined as an art. People wrapped in paper.

As a green American (actually, I’m a white American, but I like to think of myself as environmentally aware) I hate wrapping things in paper. Also, I’m really bad at it. I used to work at a Hallmark store, and hated being on “complimentary gift-wrap” duty. Picky people would stand over me thinking to themselves, “I could have done this better myself” and they likely could have done it better- I was hopeless. Even now, I claim my kids have wrapped the packages at Christmas, because it looks like it was done by a 5 year old.
Last Christmas, there were 15 people opening presents at my family’s celebration. There were 2 garbage bags full of wrapping paper thrown away when we finished. And we even saved out the shiny gift bags and the paperboard boxes. I hate wrapping, and I hate throwing it away. So, I like furoshiki. For some really beautiful pics and a chance to practice your Japanese…

All this year, I have been shopping thrift stores for silk scarves- ARC in my town sells them for a dollar, and sometimes has them half off. The tricky part is finding scarves for boy presents, but bandanas or animal prints are surprisingly common. I guess I’m surprised because I don’t wear zebra print scarves, but they are all over the thrift stores.
My other idea has been to sew gift bags. I have made my daughter a big pink drawstring bag and a couple of smaller bags out of a pink skirt I got at ARC. $2 and I will use them for every gift occasion until they wear out.(picture) Before my son’s birthday, I’ll make him a couple of bags as well.
My goal is to have no paper wrapping at Christmas for my immediate family. Anyone join me in a no-paper holiday?

It’s not depreciation, it’s self-deprecation, idiot! er, I mean, Self Deprecation and Giftedness

bedside reading

A selection of books by my bed.

My daughter is ten, and in the gifted and talented program at her school. A few years ago, when she was first being tested, I told my sister in law, and she asked if my husband was gifted, and if that was where she had inherited her intelligence…I realized that I had done too good a job hiding my light, as it were. Covering, acting like I wasn’t as smart as I am…

Actually, I have spent 40 years swinging pendulum style from showing off knowledge, back to acting normal, then exploding with brilliance, then faking idiocy. In the 80’s in a small town, it wasn’t okay for me to act smart. I remember hemming and hawing at Trivial Pursuit questions pretending the answer wasn’t obvious, sitting on my hands in Spanish in junior high. It was absolutely not appropriate for me to get better grades on Spanish tests than the Mexican-Americans who spoke Spanish at home- they were mean to me because of it. I didn’t stop trying, I just tried to be less obvious about what I knew. Other people who grew up with me may argue, perhaps they were super-intelligent and felt their intelligence was nurtured by their peers. No one else has lived my life, and being super genius was not the way to go, most of the time for me. I developed a “self-deprecating” style in the hopes that people would like me. It doesn’t always work.

Inside, I’m still nerdy, and desperate for people to like me, or at least not hate me.. I sometimes wish I could be that person who thinks, if they don’t like me they can f— themselves, but I’m just not. See, I can’t even cuss on my own blog, I’m so desperate for you to not be offended. So, the pendulum swings again, and I listen politely while people explain things to me that I already understand, then I show off, explaining how linguists use a phonetic alphabet to transcribe people’s accents, or that the Rosetta stone is actually in the British Museum. Then I make a joke, put myself down before anyone else gets a chance to. Those boys in junior high Spanish were mean as a form of social control- they didn’t want to feel bad themselves, so they made me feel bad.

At least I have chosen a job where my intelligence is mostly rewarded. I teach, and that is a job where I can be a know-it-all. I’m supposed to be an expert, if not a genius, and so I mostly fit in here.
As an adult, I have found circles of friends who like me for me, a husband who is my peer. I am so lucky. The pendulum doesn’t swing so far that I am afraid of falling off anymore.

Knowing this, I worry for my daughter. She is, as I said, also gifted (she gets it from both of us, dammit…)and I see her crazy pendulum swings now, in upper elementary, and wonder what middle school will be like. When she gets an answer on her homework wrong, she’ll hit her forehead with the heel of her hand, chanting “stupid,’tupid, ‘tupid!” Then the pendulum swings again and she says, “actually, Mom…” and correct my misconceptions. She recently learned the word misnomer, and went around using it correctly. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus is actually a misnomer, it isn’t a circus that flies…”

I wish her grace- the skill to gracefully show what she knows without appearing snotty, I wish her confidence, not arrogance. How do I guide her? Her G.T. teacher, herself a gifted person who is the mother of a gifted girl, oddly isn’t much help…she has just come through the teenage years and wonders how she survived, I think. Conversations in the teachers’ lounge usually turn into parents bragging about how smart their children are, a round robin story topping festival. Not helpful, when I want my little girl to grow up happy…

I shared the story about my sister in law not having noticed I was smart with a colleague, herself a gifted woman. She laughed. In my voice, she said, “Oh, see, I’ve been hiding the fact that I’m smart around you because I didn’t want you to feel baaaad.” She had also spent time covering up her intelligence, but she had realized that she could be one of those people who says F you. She knows who she is, and and she isn’t going to act any differently just to make other people feel comfortable. She probably even can curse on her blog. I’ll just stay here on this pendulum until it slows down.

photo credit, Jeff Stahla

If this is how she is after a carnival, imagine her on a bad day.

Pat Daly and the Fukuoka Pumpkin

            The summer I got married, a bunch of my friends were living in a rental on Plum Street in Fort Collins. None of them were college students at the time, but this was a classic college student rental house- old, near campus, big trees, but unkempt. I was over one day, eating a carrot, and got to the stem end of it. I looked around for a compost bucket on the counter, because I knew Pat Daly had had a compost pile at his old house. I asked him, and he took the end of carrot out of my hand and opened the back door and hucked it out into the bushes. I must have looked a little surprised.

“Have you read One Straw Revolution?” he asked. “Masanobu Fukuoka,” he pronounced carefully.  “He’s this Japanese guy who says don’t plow, or turn the soil, just plant everything in mulch, and use everything to mulch with, instead of big compost piles.” That was his summary of the philosophy- mulch everything, and anything can be mulch. There’s probably more to it than that.

We stepped out into the back yard- knee deep in grass and weeds, a squash plant trailing through, tomatoes ranging around.  Later that summer they would get a letter from the city telling them to mow, because of complaints from neighbors. I still haven’t read One Straw revolution”- it was out of print, and I hadn’t come across it in my used book store travels. A quick look on Amazon shows me that it has been reissued, so maybe I need to pay 10 bucks and get an education.

I thought about Pat Daly and his Fukuoka experiments earlier this summer when I noticed a sprout growing next to my back door- when it was little, it was hard to tell if it was a cucumber or sqaush- they look alike to me.  I didn’t pull it, even though I didn’t technically plant it. Sometime last fall when I was emptying the compost bucket, I was  too lazy to walk out to the bin. Maybe it was snowing, or just dark, or…honestly, I don’t remember. Seeds got dumped in amongst the leaves by the veggie bed, and one sprouted this spring. A month or so later, the plant was growing into the path, so I turned it 180 degrees, and now it’s growing behind the bed towards the house. Maybe it’s a weed, but free squash is good squash.

What kind of squash? Who knows?

What is it? We got a lot of different squashes from our CSA last year pie pumpkin, decorator pumpkin, gourd, acorn squash, weird lumpy green ones that tasted really good but made the pie look like baby poop…It could be any of them, or a cross. There were male blooms, and just now, female blooms with fruits growing behind them. Still unidentifiable.  I have my fingers crossed for a bumper crop of mystery gourds. We’ll just call them Fukuoka pumpkins.

Slight digression- one of my favorite sites on the interwebs is One Straw  the saga of a suburban guy who is turning his lawn into a microfarm. There’s a man who knows the value of mulch.

Accidentally planted, carelessly nourished, cautiously harvested...