It is easy to envy people who live in Arizona and Southern California when the temperature in Wisconsin reaches minus eight, like it did a few weeks ago and will again soon. I have family in both these places and I am sure they think of us while they are slathering sunscreen and cleaning ice cream spills off their sandals.
But what I really envy is their curious privilege of walking to the back yard and plucking an absurdly fresh orange, grapefruit or lemon from a low-hanging citrus branch. Not that I am complaining. We have fruit here. I like pears and cherries and plums. And I am head over peels for apples. But there is something exotic and unattainable about citrus fruit, which here exists only in grocery store aisles.
At least that was the case until five years ago, when my brother-in-law, Doug--or maybe it was my sister-in-law, Erin, got me a lemon tree for Christmas. The tree wasn’t wrapped in the box. I had to wait until spring when it could be safely shipped. When it arrived, it was just a stick with roots, the way most trees arrive when mailed.
With modest expectations I planted it into a large container, just small enough that one person could still carry it into the house during the winter months. I was careful not to water it excessively. Far more lemon trees are killed by overwatering than underwatering warned the nursery’s pamphlet.
The tree bloomed in its first season. I was encouraged. If you have never smelled lemon tree blossoms, you should. I might even invite you and charge admission. $7. And you would think it was a good deal. The fragrance alone is almost worth the price of the tree, even if it would never produce a single lemon. Which is almost what happened.
Most of the blossoms and most of the baby lemons that did form just fell off. I figured I was doing something wrong, but I did not know what because, well, it’s a lemon tree. Just give it time, I thought. Over the next two seasons the pattern repeated and I got a total of three lemons, which was better than none, but nothing to blog about. In the rainy summer of 2015 I put the tree in the back of the garden where it was too wet and too shady, and I kinda forgot about it. By fall its leaves were mildewed. I wondered if I had killed it. I brought it inside to above-garage garden room where the temperature was kept above 40 degrees and removed the diseased leaves, which was all of them.
Last spring, when I brought it to its new home on the farm, I decided to prune it heavily back, which I imagine to be the plant equivalent of shocking the heart in cardiac arrest. I cut all the leaves and most of the branches off. On the farm it had full sun, and I was careful to bring it inside when there was too much rain. It returned with a vengeance. Sturdy new branches. New glossy green leaves every week. I was sure there would be no fruit this year, but to my surprise it even blossomed. By midsummer I noticed small lemons. I figured they would fall off, but most did not.
Just before the first frost I brought the tree into the greenhouse. A few weeks ago all eight green lemons turned yellow. They look ready to harvest. Now that I have the lemon tree bug, I am collecting lemon seeds to grow new trees. If any of those grow, I may try to graft my variety onto the seed-grown trees. Who knows? Maybe One Seed Farm will someday be the sole supplier of local organic Wisconsin lemons.