Crapaudine Beets

I’ve been experimenting with heirloom vegetables this year. Part of my inspiration is a desire to connect with the past. Another part is a desire to connect with my work. Earlier this year I wrote a series of articles about heirloom seeds for Gardening Know How. One of those articles was on the Crapaudine beet, the oldest known cultivated beet in the world.

Wanting to back up my writing with hands-on experience, I got my own Crapaudine seeds and planted them in the garden in April. After a few months, three of them had gotten big enough to pull.

The seeds all came from the same packet, but one of these things is not like the other ones…

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The two rough beets are more like what I was expecting – I’d read that the skin would be tough and barky, possibly with a secondary root. This made sense to me, as if it were a missing link between the wild roots our ancestors ate and the fully cultivated ones we grow today.

Maybe that beautiful smooth one is just the kind of mutation that got us where we are today.

Or maybe I don’t know a thing about beet evolution.

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I cut open the perfect beet (it was perfect on the inside, too) and laid all three out on a baking sheet.

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I roasted them at 350 F for well over an hour, checking them every now and again with a fork. Once they were done, I tried to peel them.

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I’d read that if they’d been roasted long enough, the beets would slip easily out of their tough skins. This was not especially true. Peeling these things was hard and messy. If anything, the flesh sloughed away from the skin, turning to mush if it wasn’t held very delicately.

I think peeling before cooking would have been the way to go.

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Once I managed to get to the flesh, it tasted pretty darn good. It was sweet and earthy, with a grainy texture that did make it seem more “primitive” than a modern beet. But maybe that’s just my imagination.

I have another batch getting big in the ground – I’m interested to see how many look authentically ancient.

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Kajari Melon

2016 was the year of heirloom vegetables. Way back in March I bought a pile of heirloom seed packets, including one for Kajari melon. Kajari is an Indian heirloom melon that I chose because it has a short time to maturity and because it looks cool.  I started some inside and planted them out too early, so they disintegrated in the cold. In June I replaced them with seeds sown directly in the ground. The vines took off, and by late August I had a single ripe melon. It did indeed look cool.

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At least from some angles it did. From other angles it was clearly rotting. I tried to let it ripen on the vine and left it too long. It was about the size of a tennis ball and tasted horrible.

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The vines kept growing and, among the three of them, they managed to produce one more fruit, about four times the size of the first. I picked it green to save it from an impending frost and left it on the kitchen table to ripen. After about a week of being poked and prodded by my housemates (it even spent a few days wrapped up in a ribbon) it turned a satisfying orange color.

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I undid the ribbon and sliced the melon in half. The flesh was firm but juicy and smelled great.

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Unfortunately a lot of the space inside was taken up by seeds. I scooped them out, washed and dried them, and stored them away for next year. At $4.50 per 15 seed packet at Baker Creek, I could start a racket.

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All told, I got a shy bowl’s worth of fruit. Was it good? Yes! It was sweet and juicy, with a slight vegetable aftertaste I’ve never noticed in a melon before. Like it was 6 parts melon but 1 part squash. I liked it – it felt earthy and satisfying.

But was it worth seven months of waiting? Maybe not.

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Rhode Island is a tough place to grow melons. It can technically be done, but it ain’t easy and it ain’t guaranteed. Our summers just aren’t quite long enough. I did enjoy this one melon, though, so I’ll probably give it another shot. I’ll try to time my spring transplants better so I don’t have to resow in the summer.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get three melons.

A girl can dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concord Grape Juice

Storm’s comin!

New England has been battening down for Tropical Storm Hermine. So far she hasn’t brought much more than a dreary break in the stunning fall weather, but Monday had some high winds that got me worried about the fruit in the garden. The perimeter fence has a few big old concord grape vines that belong to no one in particular. This year I decided (with the garden manager’s permission, mind you) that at least some of them belong to me. So I braved the pre-Hermine gusts and rescued the ripest ones.

I didn’t weigh at the time, but I’d guess I picked about ten pounds.

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My initial plan was to make a big batch of wine. The king of concord grape wine is Manischewitz, which I’ve always had a soft spot for because it tastes just like grape juice. I followed that logic and asked myself: wouldn’t it be nicer just to have grape juice?

Yes it would.

My parents have made grape juice for years. I think it might be my grandmother’s recipe. The jars line a shelf in the basement, and a couple always get brought up for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Gosh is it good. The ingredients, emailed by my mom, are:

  • 1 heavy cup concord grapes
  • 2/3 cup white sugar
  • boiling water

And that’s it! Since it’s not fermented, it has to be processed in the canner. I heated up a bunch of quart jars to sanitize them.

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I dealt with the jars one at a time. I removed one from the canner, dumped in the sugar and grapes, and filled it almost to the top with boiling water. The water turned out to be the limiting factor, since my kettle only held three jars’ worth.

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The jar full, I fitted the screw top lid and put it back in the canner. Once all the jars were done, I added more water so the jars were completely submerged. I raised the heat to a hard boil, put the lid on the canner, and processed for 20 minutes. During those 20 minutes I made an unsettling discovery – my canner is so big it has to straddle two burners, and with the water high enough to cover the quart jars, it spills over the sides… straight onto the open gas flames below. Twice I had to turn off a burner when the flame went out completely. I can’t imagine this is good for the stove, and it sure wasn’t good for my peace of mind. Maybe I’ll have to invest in an outdoor camp stove.

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I processed two batches, making for a dozen jars and 3 gallons of juice. At this point I ran out of quart jars (and patience watching for gas leaks). I had about 3 1/2 pounds of grapes left, so I mixed them up with some sugar and yeast. We’ll have about a gallon of knockoff Manischewitz after all!

There are three distinct layers in the jars, but I have it on good authority from my mom that this is normal: “Do not stir or shake the juice. You’ll think you’ve screwed up because the grapes and sugar will sit in the bottom. As times passes, the grapes will move, the sugar dissolve, and the juice turn pink/red.”

Well, my grapes are on the top. Hopefully that doesn’t matter.

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Of the twelve jars, one didn’t seal properly for some reason. Since I can’t store it, I’ll just have to drink it. I shook it up to mix in the sugar and poured a glass. It’s not as dark or as strong as the goal, but the taste is perfect. Three gallons may not be enough.

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Glass courtesy of Endless Brewing, my beloved hometown brewery. Go see them and tell them I sent you. You probably won’t get a free beer, but you’ll almost definitely get a smile of recognition. And the beer is worth it.

Garlic Forever

I harvested my garlic a month ago, and since then it’s been dangling from strings wherever I could find space in the basement.

It’s time to consolidate.

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I hung the whole plants, bulbs down, in three bundles spaced loosely enough to allow good airflow. Since the plants are good and dry now, I can cut the bulbs away. I just snipped through the stalks  with a pair of scissors about an inch above the bulbs.

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I also trimmed off the excess roots, mostly for aesthetics and to keep the bulbs from tangling with each other.

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Here they are nicely shorn.

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Last summer I harvested about half a dozen bubs. If I keep expanding at this rate I can go into production soon.

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I’m not going into production yet. (I’m not even sharing with my housemates!) But I do want my garlic looking its best. I gently peeled off the outer, dirty layer of papery skin.

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And that’s it! I tucked them an old mesh onion bag and hung them from a nail in a dark alcove of the cellar. Last year’s garlic lasted all winter like that, so I have high hopes. Around Halloween I’ll break up one or two and plant the cloves – I’m excited to get a multi-generational crop and finally become garlic self-sufficient.

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I’m using “self-sufficient” very loosely. There’s no way this is lasting a year.

Geraniums in Need

I don’t deserve my houseplants.

In college I bought two geraniums at a plant sale. I’m reasonably sure I’m watering one of them in this short film my friends and I made in 2008.

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I since gave one to my dad. It’s beautiful and lush and is living out its days on the front porch. The other one stayed with me, and I’ve been treating it with an attitude that could very generously be called laissez-faire.

Here it is.

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It’s been wasting away in the window of our living room for a few years. This past spring I finally got it together to give it a dash of fertilizer, which inspired it to grow this long tentacle off to the right.

To its credit, it’s been blooming more or less constantly all this time. I’ve been hoping to collect some seeds, but while I’ve gotten a few fluffy spikes from the spent flowers, no actual seeds have appeared.

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Deciding I owed it to this plant to try and make things right, I took a few simple but decisive steps. First of all, I cut off the tentacle. It was the newest growth, but it was unsustainable. It could barely hold itself up and was only going to get longer.

For curiosity’s sake, I stuck it in a bucket of dirt to see if I could get it to take root.

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I removed all the flowers (and, since, a few of the leaves) to help it focus its energy on root-growing.

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I trimmed up the main plant a bit and gave both containers a big dose of kelp meal and water. I set them in the dappled shade for a few days, then moved them to fuller sun.

Now it’s been a little over a month and, against all odds, both plants are alive and kicking.

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I’m especially impressed with the tentacle which, with four leaves to its name, has produced a big clutch of flowers and buds.

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If I’d known this thing was going to make it, I might’ve taken a little more care planting it – like cutting it down or sticking it in better soil that wasn’t infested with mulberry seeds.

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I’m not about to mess with now, though. I’ll give it some more time either to establish or exhaust itself, and then I’ll take stock.

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The main plant is looking much better, too. It’s still on the spindly side, but it’s a lot greener and blooming more vigorously.

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I’d say Project Geranium was a success. They have another good month or two outside to build up their strength, so hopefully it’s only up from here.

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If they hold on long enough, they just might get to star in another movie.

 

 

 

Garlic Time

It’s garlic time!

Last fall I bought a whole pile of garlic from the farmer’s market. I stuck the cloves in the ground in November and hoped for the best.

Sure enough, almost all of them sprouted and grew. They stayed a little smaller than my neighbors’ – probably because I got carried away and planted them too close together.

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When I pulled them out, the heads were a little on the small side, too. In spite of that, they were all fully formed and healthy looking.

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I got about 20 heads in all. I brought them up to the house and gently brushed them clean with a paper towel.

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I bundled them together into three bunches that ought to give them ample air circulation.

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And I hung them in the basement from whatever spare nails I could find. It’s starting to look like a colonial storehouse down there. I’ll leave them to dry for a few weeks before I cut off the stalks and roots, brush off the excess dirt, and settle in for the long winter.

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Rugosa Rose Propagation

I just got back from vacation with my family. I trooped down to the public library for essentials like work and Game of Thrones, but for the most part I’ve been without internet.

Now I’m back with the comforting blanket of pervasive wifi and a fierce desire to grow Rugosa Roses.

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Rugosa Rose, also called Rugged Rose or Beach Rose, grows all over the island my family vacations on. It smells amazing. A few years ago my parents put two small plants in their garden. They’re on course to take over the house in a few years, so my dad had no problem sending me home with a few cuttings.

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I’ve never propagated roses, but after hastily reading a single google result I decided I was good to go.

I read that my cuttings should be 6 to 8 inches long, with a withered flower on the end. As luck would have it, the branches my dad gave me were covered in just-passed flowers, so I clipped off as many 8 inch lengths as I could find.

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I cut off the lower leaves to make a long bare stem of new growth, ending in one or two sets of leaves and single flower.

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These were some productive branches – I ran out of small pots before I ran out of flowers.

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My inadequate research has led me to believe that new growth propagates better than old growth. Since I have so much old growth and don’t really know what I’m doing, though, I’m giving it a go with the big branches, too. I made a new 45 degree cut at the base of each one because of an unfounded belief that this is better.

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I removed the lower growth and stuck each branch in a big pot. It almost looks like I have real, healthy plants and not just branches jammed in the ground.

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Just for the heck of it I planted a couple of those flowerless lower branches, too.

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With everybody planted, I gave them a thorough soaking. Apparently the name of the game now is keeping the cuttings moist. I read that covering them in plastic bags helps, but it’s been so hot recently that I’m worried I’d roast them that way. Instead I’ve been spraying them down daily, never letting the soil dry out.

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In all I have 13 cuttings – some old growth and some new, some deadheaded and some not. (I have to imagine deadheaded is better, since they’re devoting energy to roots instead of seeds, but we’re learning here).

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With this many test subjects, something is bound to take, right?

What’s Growing?

A long long time ago I bought some seeds. When some of them got too unruly, I transplanted them outside and hoped for the best. Now we’re well into June and everybody’s out in the ground.

Or dead.

A week after planting out my tomatoes, I transplanted all the others – the eggplants, peppers, melons, tomatillos, and cabbages. And it did not go well. The next few days were incredibly windy, and the very next night dropped down to 39F. I’d babied the tomatoes, hardening them off gradually and wrapping them in plastic. This second round I did in much more of a rush, and I paid the price. Melons dissolved. Cabbages crumbled.

A couple of the stronger and better sheltered ones, like this tomatillo, have held on. I’ve seen healthier plants, but compared to what he was, he’s in top form.

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The tomatoes, by now old hands at outdoor life, are a mixed bag. Three of my five grow bag plants are the picture of health.

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The other two are… flagging. Those in the garden are in the same boat. I planted three varieties of tomatoes, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to this gross inequality. Two of the giants are Paul Robesons, and the third is a Blue Beauty. Here’s another Blue Beauty looking no bigger than when I planted it out.

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The seeds I started in the ground outside are all seem happy. The Red Orach started slow…

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But now it’s taking off. The leaves taste fine. The best word I can come up with is minerally. So far I’ve only eaten the odd raw leaf, wanting to give the two plants a chance to grow. With the bigger over a foot tall, now, I think I can safely cook some up.

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My Beleah Rose Lettuce is coming in nicely.

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But nowhere near as nicely as my green lettuce, self-sown from last year’s crop. Eating salad has become something of an obligation in my house.

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I have a third variety of lettuce, all on its lonesome with the kale, that’s the lone survivor from a crop I tried to grow in the hoop house in November. All the others froze, but this one must have tucked itself under the plastic just right and is absolutely thriving.

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The Magnolia Blossom Tendril Peas are gangbusters. They’re already taller than the trellis and me, and they’re showing no signs of stopping. The flowers are beautiful, the tendrils are cool, and the peas are… fine. More of a green taste than that nice pea sweetness. I’ve only tired the young whole pods, though – maybe when they mature the peas inside will be a different story.

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My other peas are these snazzy Dwarf Blauwschokkers. They’re a Dutch bush variety that produces deep blue blossoms and even deeper blue pea pods. Just like the tendril peas, though, these guys get high points for presentation and low points for taste. I’d describe the flavor of these as so green they seem unripe. And maybe they are. The name makes me think that they’re meant for shucking and will be better when they’re more mature, but my Dutch is rusty.

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On a strange note, some of my Blauwschokkers have come out as the plainest, greenest, pea-est peas I’ve ever seen. Where did these guys come from? I think there’s been some intermingling…

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The Crapaudine Beets are doing well, though germination has been pretty sparse.

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Likewise with the Pusa Asita Black Carrots, which seem to have been taken down from the site I ordered them from! I hope that’s not a bad sign… The plants that have come up seem to be nice and healthy.

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I planted two kinds of beans: Chinese Red Noodle and Dragon Tongue Bush Bean. I wish I knew which was which. I also wish I hadn’t taken up valuable trellis space with a bush bean, but this is how we learn.

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My Desi Summer Squash is coming in great.

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My Kajari melons were coming in great, until they disintegrated in the cold. I’ve planted some seeds directly in the soil and they’re well on their way. This is supposed to be a fast-producing melon, so with any luck I’ll get some fruit out of it before fall.

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One of my cabbages also fell apart, but I replaced it with another seedling I hadn’t put out yet. This is the state of a lot of my transplants – the scraggly guys who weren’t fit to put out at first are the new stars of the show.

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Some are coming into their own, like this pepper.

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And others, like this adorable little eggplant, have a long way to go.

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Whatever happens, I probably won’t go hungry this summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomatoes on Their Own

A while back I bought too many seeds. And then I planted them. So before I knew it I had too many seedlings.

Here are my little baby tomatoes back in March. Aren’t they cute?

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Here they are last weekend. Not so cute anymore.

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This poor seed tray was overrun with tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, peppers, melons, and cabbages. The tomatoes were the real problem children – they got so big they flopped over and started to grow up again at a 90 degree angle, shading everybody in the process.

After an unseasonably warm winter, early May was unusually cold. I waited as long as I could, but finally had to give up and move them outside. The nights could be warmer, but the danger of frost seems to have passed. And these things can’t keep growing in the living room.

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I got three varieties of tomatoes and grew three plants of each. I have a second plot in the community garden this year, but there’s still nowhere near enough space, so I’m going container crazy. I got a few 7 gallon fabric grow bags, and boy do they hold a lot of dirt. If the tomatoes aren’t happy with this amount of space, I don’t know what to tell them.

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You can bury tomatoes deep when you transplant them, which is nice when your seedlings are over two feet tall. Even so, they have some very funny bends to them. I tried to angle them toward the bars of the cage and tied them gently in place. With any luck they’ll grow up straightish from here.

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Since the nights are still chilly, I wrapped the cages in plastic painters’ drop cloths. The idea was to retain a little bit of heat, but as evening fell and the wind picked up, I decided they’d be even better for wind protection. I did harden the seedlings off over the course of several days, but spending your first night outside in the wind and tied to a stake would be rough on anybody.

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The end result was a pretty sturdy set of tents. It wasn’t supposed to get below freezing, and I wasn’t looking for a repeat of the hoop house – all I wanted was a little extra protection.

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I did put a few tomatoes in my garden plot as well, and I gave them the same wrap treatment. The wind in the garden is considerably stronger than at my house, and I was slightly worried I’d just tied my seedlings to big sails… They survived the first few nights, and then I took the plastic off due to rising temperatures and sheer anxiety.

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Five days later all the plants are doing well. No one has wilted and no one has gotten wrenched in half by a gust. Last year’s tomato season was something of a bust, so I’m really hoping for a good showing this summer.

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With nine plants, I have the numbers on my side.

Lemon Hope

My lemon tree has had a strange winter. It’s shot up by a few feet and is about as tall as I am. And it’s lost a lot of its leaves…

Both very good reasons to give it a bigger pot.

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This tree has never given me a lemon and perhaps it never will, but I love it anyway.

I planted it from a seed three years ago when I moved to Providence. In a fit of gardening I went to the grocery store and bought every food I thought I could plant. The only remnants are this tree and my prized ugly rosemary bush, grown from a sprig.

I bought a 16″ pot with a false bottom that’s supposed to be self-watering. Citrus trees need a lot of water, so I’m hoping this helps.

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First I had to get the tree out of its old pot. I gently turned it on its side. Some loose soil fell out, but but almost all of it was bound up in the root ball.

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It took some doing to get the root ball out of the pot. I banged on the sides and bottom and yanked gently on the trunk. The trunk is a good centimeter in diameter and very woody, but this was rougher than I wanted to be with it. I was about to get the shears to cut the pot away when the whole thing popped out all at once.

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The roots had started to circle around the bottom – not ideal. I loosened them up a little with my fingers, so hopefully they’ll spread out in their new home.

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I made a bed of a few inches of potting soil and set the tree on top of it. At some point in the winter it sprouted this new little stalk from the base of its trunk. It’s the healthiest part of the tree and my failsafe – if the main plant gets worse I’ll lop everything off and hope this little guy makes it.

There are some new leaves higher up, though, so I’m hoping for the best.

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I filled the pot up too high with potting soil and worked in some kelp meal. I’ll have to research what lemon trees like to eat, but in the meantime I get the impression that you can’t go wrong with kelp.

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I filled the pot even more too high with buckwheat hulls to keep the moisture in. My dad has forever put bits and bobs in his potted plants, so I do too. They’re especially helpful for holding the hulls in place and dispersing the watering can’s stream more evenly.

The bits and bobs featured here are oyster and scallop shells, a rusted railroad tie, and some rocks from Iceland.

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I’ve put the tree in a dappled shade part of the driveway. I’ll move it to full sun eventually, but this is already a big change from its window inside, and I don’t want it getting scorched.

Hopefully it starts to recover those lost leaves.

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Maybe someday I’ll even get a lemon.