Gardening in the Orchard

While we wait (and wait) to get our building permit, we have kept ourselves occupied and sane with our garden/orchard.  We made raised boxes in the orchard a few years ago, when the trees were little babies.  Now, as the trees are starting to reach a more mature height and width, many of the planting boxes in my garden don’t get enough sunlight!  So, obviously, this will be the last year I garden in the orchard.

The reason we put the garden in the orchard in the first place was because we needed to water everything automatically, as we were still living 1-1/2 hours away in the valley and coming up to water every other weekend or so.  We set up an automatic watering system with zero pressure timers (hard to find) and small tubes to distribute the water.  Now that we are living here, we can water every day by hand, if needed, and the watering system has been largely dismantled

So, here is my picture heavy post of all the happenings in the garden/orchard.

First up…  Strawberries!  Lots of them.

Next I want to show you the zucchini and yellow crook neck squash.  We put them in a raised bed that we moved to outside of the shade of the larger trees in the orchard between a couple of small peach trees.

The yellow squash has gone absolutely nuts!

Can you see the celery in there?  Ray and I attended a workshop at the Heirloom Festival in Santa Rosa last year that taught us a lot about gardening that we didn’t know.  One thing they stressed was the need to plant in every available space – which provides living mulch, companion advantages (one of my favorite books is “Carrots Love Tomatoes”), and actually uses less water.  We also learned a bit about rotation of crops and succession planting.  So, we took our lesson to heart and planted the celery with the squash, peppers with strawberries, and squash with corn.

Speaking of peppers with strawberries:

They seem to be doing well together.  We have already picked off a few red bell peppers, before they got red, because the poor plants were barely big enough to support them yet!

And then there are the beans.  I love black turtle beans and plant them every year.  The first ones I planted were from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and I have been selecting the biggest and best plants to collect seed for the next year’s crop.  This is the third year of saving my own seed.  The black turtle beans are bush beans, which works well for me because I put the kentucky wonder pole beans on the opposite side of the bed, where they can climb up the trellis without shading the black beans.

Of course, I couldn’t have a garden without some tomatoes, garlic and basil… right?  You can barely see them, but there is some spinach seedlings just reaching their first set of leaves up to the sky.  Sounds like a good salad to me!  Oh, and the nasturtium flowers are also edible, and add a colorful spicy note to a salad.  They will be blooming about the same time as I will be able to harvest a few spinach leaves. 

The potatoes are starting to bloom.  I have three of these potato towers in the garden.  If you have never seen this before, it’s a way of growing lots of potatoes in a small space in your garden.  This variety is the Yellow Finn potato.

I was very pleased that Steve made it through the winter.  Oh, you haven’t met Steve? Well, let me introduce you.

This is Steve, my stevia plant!  He is now four years old.

We had to uproot our two artichoke plants last year because the poor dears kept getting nipped on their toes by our &$@#%(& voles and/or gophers.  But, they are doing well nonetheless.  I can’t wait to be able to get them in the ground again, but since our perennial garden is going to be near the house, they will just have to wait.  Once house is built, we will be able to get our permanent perennial beds done.

And then, there is this monster.  It’s a spaghetti squash.  I try to grow something new every year to see if it is something I should keep in my garden.  Last year I tried Fava (broad) beans and Amaranth.

Okay.

So, I thought I would plant two of the three sisters together – corn and squash.  Well, I should have planted the corn first, waited a few weeks, THEN planted the squash.  The poor corn can barely see the light of day because the squash is growing and GROWING! I put a tomato cage around it hoping to contain it, but obviously that’s not gonna happen. Seriously, I think I can hear it growing!  Since I like to name my plants, I think I will call this one Audrey!  Hopefully she won’t be a maneater 😉

To the left of the squash is my lemon balm.  I use that for my tea also, for a refreshing lemony taste without the lemon.  A crushed up stevia leaf and that’s all I need.  Ahhhhhhhhhh

Tucked in here and there are a few marigolds, some sweet pea and the nastirtums.  They are supposed to repel some bad bugs but bring in the good ones.  We’ll see.  Even if they don’t, they will be pretty in the garden anyway.

And the last picture?  Today’s harvest, of course!

 

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The Last of the Lemons and Mandarins

Here is a picture of our Meyer Lemon tree inside the greenhouse, snug as a bug in a rug! You can see there are a few ripe lemons left on the tree.

Several years ago I bought a dwarf Meyer Lemon tree and have truly loved it ever since!

Our new homestead in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California has a few days each winter below freezing (rarely below 26 or 27 degrees) for a day or two at a time, and most citrus trees cannot withstand that low of a temperature for that long.  So, we are keeping our citrus trees in fairly large pots, which allows us to move them for the winter into a greenhouse or cover it with a frost blanket, or both!

We live in USDA zone 7b or 8a, and yet our citrus trees have done well, in fact they have positively thrived since moving up to our new homestead.

The move up here was particularly hard on the citrus trees because most of their leaves got shredded while travelling in the back of our pick-up.  It was so sad and we didn’t even know it was happening until we arrived, but the poor dears bloomed just a few short months later anyway.  Now that’s what I call resilience!

This shows part of our garden/orchard area this past winter during yet another snow (we had more than usual). You can see our little greenhouse with the mandarin and  lemon trees, along with my faithful stevia plant tucked inside.

In Italy, lemons are very popular, and so many homes are built with a “lemonaia”, a room with southern window exposure just for citrus fruit trees to overwinter!

A picture of our Meyer Lemon tree in full bloom last year.

For those who don’t know, a Meyer Lemon is actually a cross between a regular lemon (Lisbon or Eureka) and a mandarin orange, which is why the Meyer is sweeter than a regular lemon.  However, it may be less acidic than a regular lemon, which is why you should not use one for acidifying fruits or vegetables while canning.

The Lisbon and Eureka lemons are usually larger than a Meyer Lemon, and the coloring of the fruit is also a little different, with the Meyer having a slightly orange tinge to both the rind and the flesh.

broad bean hummus

Here are a couple of our Meyer Lemons with some Fava bean hummus.  The Meyer Lemon zest is also very flavorful – much sweeter and brighter tasting (in my opinion) than a regular lemon.

I just adore the sweet/tart flavor of the Meyer, especially dripped onto salmon patties, or infused with basil or lavender in a glass of iced cold water… especially on a hot summer day!

Our tree produced about 15 lemons this year, which is a lot for this little tree, and there were a few left on the tree just this last week.  I figured I should get them off the tree, since I saw there were already small flower buds on the tree for this year’s crop!

My mother has had a regular lemon tree in her backyard for quite a few years now (I think it is a Eureka) and only picks the fruit when she needs them, and so she has had mature fruit, immature fruit and blossoms on the tree all at the same time.  Although it doesn’t seem that her tree minds this in the least, hers is in the ground and mine is in a pot, so I thought I would unburden the tree by picking the last of the lemons.

Our dwarf Tango Mandarin tree loaded with unripe fruit. This picture was taken last fall before we put it into the greenhouse.

Our mandarin tree is a Tango Mandarin and is about four years old now. Last year we got almost three dozen mandarins from this dwarf tree!  The Tango is supposed to be seed free, but every one of ours have had seeds.  After a bit of research, I found that this is probably because of it’s close proximity to our Meyer lemon tree, and the apparent cross pollination.

Who knew?

Obviously we didn’t… but we live and learn!

However, since we don’t mind a few seeds (a perfect excuse for a lady to spit!) we will continue to grow them together.

Believe it or not, this little tree produced almost three dozen fruit this year!  The Tango mandarin isn’t usually completely ripe until late January or February, and the quality of the fruit does not degrade for a month or so after ripeness when left on the tree, so we have been enjoying the “fruits of our labor” day by day as we walk by and pluck a snack.

The mandarins are starting to ripen! We took the citrus trees out of the greenhouse when the danger of a hard freeze had passed, so that the sunshine would help the fruit to further ripen. If you compare this picture with the one above, you can see that a couple of months in the greenhouse saved the tree, but the fruit was just barely more ripe!

What did I do with the last of my Meyer lemons?  I cut them, squeezed them, strained the and poured the juice into ice cube trays.

Frozen Meyer Lemon Juice

I ended up with three trays of frozen Meyer lemon juice cubes.

I thought of making lemon curd, but to save time I thought I would first freeze the juice and then decide later what to do with it. I found a great recipe for lemon curd that can be canned in half pint jars at National Center for Home Food Preservation.  If I don’t make the curd, I will probably use the ice cubes this summer in iced tea or infused water.  Mmmmm… doesn’t that sound good?

Someday, if we ever get our new house built, I am going to put these trees on our front porch, which will be on the south side of the house. When the trees are in bloom the aroma is heavenly, and I think they would make a beautiful welcome to all who visit.  I want to add a lime tree and probably another Tango mandarin, and will use them as a border along one side of the porch where I can set a couple of pretty patio chairs.  Won’t that look pretty?

Where the party is:

 

 

We Have Walnuts – and Pears!

Three years ago we planted our first walnut tree up on the future homestead.  Then, two years ago we planted another.  Walnuts are notorious for taking a long time to produce a crop, but here we are with our first walnuts!First crop of Walnuts

Yeah.  I know.  We only got seven walnuts – but it’s a start!

Actually, we only have five walnuts because two of them weren’t ready to harvest yet.  The walnut husk has to split open to release the nut, and these two weren’t ready to be released yet…

First Walnut Harvest

These two walnuts weren’t ready to be harvested. You can see, however, a crack starting to develop on the husk!

The walnuts will be an important source of protein on our homestead, along with animal protein from our eggs, chicken and fish. Walnuts are just chock full of nutrients, and walnut oil is prized among many gourmet chefs. We also planted an almond tree last year (we have purchased all of our fruit and nut trees from Peaceful Valley Nursery), but have three more almond trees in pots that Mother Nature gave us this past spring.  They came as volunteer almond trees that grew from seed our mature almond tree dropped last fall!

Walnut and Pear Spice Cake

A giant pear at the Kelseyville Pear Fair!

This past weekend we attended the Pear Festival in Kelseyville, California (which is near Clear Lake), with some dear friends of ours.  This was such a quaint small town affair and we had a lot of fun. First, we watched a parade with some beautiful horses, a mariachi band, and some awesome vintage cars. Apparently the local high school was hosting their homecoming game that afternoon, so the individual class floats – all themed after Dr. Seuss books – were a highlight of the parade.  After the parade we walked down the main street of town and visited booth after booth of handmade and specialty items for sale.  We ate some delicious tamales for lunch and noshed on pear ice cream for dessert.  Before we left, we bought two large bags of pears.

Walnut tree's first crop

The pears made a nice little display with some of my pie birds. So colorful!

The yellow round pears are Asian Pears, but unfortunately I forgot which variety they were.  They are sweet and firm with a wonderful crispness.  The red pears are called Starkrimson. Ray and I have never tried this variety before, so we decided to get a bag and have a taste. I did some research when I got home about the Starkrimson pear, and apparently they turn from a deep almost burgundy red to a brighter fire engine red when ripe.  The bag we brought home only had one that was ripe, which is great because we can eat the pears every other day or so as they ripen. My verdict of Starkrimson?  These pears are heavenly.  Very sweet, juicy and with a finer texture than a Bartlett.  I think they will make a great toasted walnut, blue cheese and pear salad!  In fact, the newly harvested walnuts just might be just enough for a nice salad. 😀

Three walnuts from our first harvest.

Three of the seven walnuts from our first harvest.

To celebrate our first walnut harvest and to use some of the Asian Pears, I decided to bake a Cake.  I got a recipe from Food Network called Pear Walnut Spice Cake.  I chose this one because it called for 2 cups of diced pears, 1 cup of chopped walnuts, and 1 cup of raisins – along with cinnamon, cloves and allspice.  Mmmmmm……  it sounded so good!  The glaze was made with powdered sugar and maple syrup.  The result?

Kelseyville Pear Festival

Since pears and walnuts are fall harvested crops, I thought it would be appropriate to display the cake next to my fall vignette on the dining room table.

……….A really good cake!

The cake itself was fairly heavy – like a fruitcake with a melt in your mouth “crust”, but the pears were moist, and the walnuts had a yummy roasted flavor.  The raisins added just enough twang and it all paired very well with the spices.  This one was a winner and I will bake it again and again! Here is a link to the recipe:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/pear-walnut-spice-cake.html

We haven’t planted a pear tree on our future homestead yet, but plan to get one of those multi-graft trees that have several varieties on one tree.  These are great because you don’t have to worry about pollination issues, although usually the fruit will ripen at different times which extends the harvest season.  If I had my choice, I would get a Bartlett Pear, a D’Anjou and our new favorite, Starkrimson!

I was also looking at a few recipes for pear pie.  I would like to try the Starkrimson in a pie to see how it holds up with baking.  Do you have a good pear pie recipe?  If you do, please feel free to post a link in the comments below!

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Trees and Plants in Pots

One of the advantages of living in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California is our balmy Mediterranean-like weather.  We can grow just about anything.  Seriously!

Just about every kind of nut or fruit tree, vegetable and herb does well here in the valley.  Especially citrus.  We have a huge naval orange tree that supplies us with hundreds of pounds of oranges every year.  In fact, one of our favorite desserts in the winter is an orange with half a bar of dark chocolate…  one bite of this, one bite of that 😀

In preparation for moving up to our future homestead in the mountains where citrus trees don’t survive unless they are kept above freezing temperatures, we decided to get some dwarf citrus and plant them in large pots so that they can be moved around.  They will stay inside a pit greenhouse (sometimes called walipini) during the winter and can be brought to the front porch of our soon to be built house during the spring, summer and autumn.

Container Grown Meyer Lemons

These lemons are sizing up nicely. They should be good and juicy by November or December

I bought the lemon tree first, when I saw it on sale at our local nursery, because I loved the Meyer lemon tree that my mother has.  The Meyer lemon comes from China and is a cross between a traditional lemon and a mandarin orange, which makes it just a bit sweeter.  It is delicious when used in lemon bars or lemon iced tea, but is out of this world when squeezed on fresh grilled salmon.  In researching the Meyer Lemon, I found that the dwarf variety does quite nicely in containers, as long as they are given an occasional boost of a good citrus fertilizer.

Growing Citrus Trees in Pots

The mandarin tree has about 19 walnut sized mandarins on it right now, and another dozen or so pea sized ones!

Soon after, my oldest son bought a Tango Mandarin for my grand children. The kids were going through boxes of those “cuties” that are sold at the grocery store, so my son thought it would be a good idea to get their own tree. These little citrus fruits are the kind that peel very easily and have little to no seeds – perfect for small hands and mouths.  When I saw the cute little tree he had, I decided to get one for myself.  This variety of mandarin can be a bit more pricey than a regular mandarin or tangerine, because the tree was developed to have sterile flowers which don’t cross-pollinate, preventing the seeds from forming. We bought two large cement pots, one for the lemon tree and the other for the mandarin, at a Mexican pottery store in Escalon called Lopez Imports, and they were quite reasonably priced!  Both citrus trees have done well in those pots.  In fact, the mandarin just finished blooming again (second bloom of the year), and now has little pea sized fruits on it as well as the walnut sized ones from the first bloom in the spring!

Tango Mandarin in a Pot

The tree is three years old now and is producing very well. It stands about 6 feet tall. We will be pruning the tallest branches after harvest, to keep the tree a reasonable size.

The mandarins will be ripe sometime in January, although the mature fruit can be left on the tree for several months, harvesting as desired.  However, it is important to harvest all of the mandarins before the first bloom in spring opens, or the next year’s harvest will be reduced.

Next is the ginger.  I planted a piece of ginger root two months ago when I had a small piece left after making some Ginger Ale.  If you have never made your own Ginger Ale before, click HERE for directions. It’s really fun and really good!

Growing ginger in a container

The ginger has been growing slowly yet steadily and now has it’s fifth shoot starting up.

It took about two weeks, but sure enough, a small sprig came up out of the ground.  I think I probably planted it too deep, but here we are about two months later and another sprig (the fifth) is just now coming up out of the ground!  The leaves got a bit burned a few weeks ago when we had an intense heat  and wind spell, but overall I think the plant looks pretty happy. It’s nice being able to have a plant on the patio, because ginger doesn’t like direct sunlight, and prefers moist, not wet soil.

Tomatoes grown in Containers

Here is my beautiful, lush volunteer heirloom tomato. Nice plant – but where are the tomatoes?

Here is my tomato plant.  I couldn’t plant a garden this year because our real estate agent said nice lawns sell houses. We are selling our valley house so we can start building our mountain homestead. 😀  So, I decided to put a couple of our volunteer tomatoes (from last year’s crop) into a large pot on our patio.

Well, here it is.

Do you see any tomatoes?  Neither do I.  Harrumph!

I don’t want to blame the tomato, however.  I think I am going to blame myself.  You see, the plant is always thirsty!  I used to think it was because the unglazed terracotta pot was letting the soil evaporate too easily.  Nope.  I figured out that it’s because there isn’t anything holding in the water – as in mulch!  If I am not able to water the tomato every single day, the poor thing withers, and it’s been withered down a lot lately.  I am going to try layering some paper on top of the soil and see if that will make a difference.  Better late than never!

Growing Pomegranate in a Pot

One of our two pomegranate trees.

We also have a couple of pomegranate trees in pots.  These are trees I got at a clearance sale because I couldn’t pass them up.  Unfortunately, the variety of pomegranate was not marked on the pots, but since the variety Wonderful is the most popular here in California, I am going to assume that is what they are.  They had several blooms this year but didn’t produce any fruit, so hopefully we will get one or two next year.  We are planning to get several more pomegranate trees that we will plant along the road frontage of our future mountain homestead, but these two make a great start in that direction. If you would like to know which variety of pomegranate my husband and I have decided to plant (along with the two Wonderful variety we already have), and how we made our decision, you can go HERE.  Hopefully we will be able to get them into the ground this next spring, but we have some clearing to do before that will happen.

Almond trees grown from seed

These are three of the volunteer almond trees we saved before we tore out our vegetable garden and rolled out lawn in it’s place.

Finally, I have three volunteer almond trees.  They all look fine – one is really tall, one is quite short and the other is the middle child.  Looking at the pots they are in, the growth rate of each tree really makes no rhyme or reason – the tallest tree being in the smallest pot!  Nonetheless, they are all surviving just fine.  They are babies of the almond tree we have in our backyard, that produces some of the most juicy, sweet almonds you will ever eat.  Hopefully these babies will produce almonds just as good – in about five years!

Here is where I need some advice

The dilemma:  I know the almond trees and pomegranate trees will be fine up on our mountain homestead, but what to do with the Meyer Lemon, the Tango Tangerine and the Ginger?  We will be living in our trailer while we build our home, and as anyone who has ever been in a travel trailer knows, there just isn’t any extra space.  None.  So, where do we put our three tropical weather loving potted plants?  We do have a small 5′ x 6′ plastic greenhouse.  I think I will put the two trees inside the greenhouse in the middle of our fruit orchard, so they will be able to get sunlight during the day.

But what happens when it freezes?

I did see one method to keep an unheated greenhouse reasonably warm.  It involves horse manure.  You see, apparently horse manure gets really hot and stays hot for a couple of weeks as it decomposes.  From what I have read, a nice sized pile of horse manure, insulated by some grass or straw, inside a box, will keep a small greenhouse frost free for two weeks.  Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad, but will it make the lemons and mandarins smell or taste a little… well… poopy?

Another method I read about was using water as an insulator.  Apparently you would line the north and east sides (at least) with jugs of water (milk jugs work), two or three rows high with boards between stabilizing them so they don’t tumble over.  The milk jugs absorb the warmth from the sun during the day and then radiate the warmth back into the greenhouse during the night.  That method sounds like it is do-able also.  But what happens when you have a few days in a row without any sunlight?

I suppose if the temperature drops below 28 degrees, which is the lowest temperature most citrus can tolerate, we could always put our little propane heater in the greenhouse – on the lowest setting of course.  But again, do we need to worry about fumes hurting the trees or even the fruit?

What do you think?  We only need a temporary solution because we plan to start building the pit greenhouse next year – hopefully before the next winter settles in.

Any suggestions?

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