Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dwarf Citrus Are Big On Flavor & Fragrance

As we move into the shorter, chillier gray days of autumn and winter, few things brighten and warm a room like the sweet, rich aroma of lemon blossoms or the glow of maturing oranges among glossy, green leaves. Thanks to the widespread cultivation of dwarf citrus trees, any gardener with a bright window can enjoy all the sensory pleasures of lemons, limes, oranges, and more, all year long.

Like most fruit tree cultivation, where a branch or scion of a desirable variety of tree is grafted onto a sturdy rootstock, dwarf citrus trees are grafts of a normal fruit-bearing branch onto dwarf rootstock, which keeps the plant at a manageable size for summer patios and year-round enjoyment in your solarium.

Because the fruiting branch is from a full-sized tree, the fruits which develop are also full-size, and full-flavored. However, that also means that like a dutiful orchard manager, you will have to prune your tree periodically to keep it within bounds. Normally, pinching off growing tips will help maintain an attractive shape, which is preferable to letting the plant send out tall shoots requiring severe pruning.

In addition, always remove shoots or “suckers” which tend to pop out from the dwarf rootstock. Look for a diagonal scar running the trunk’s circumference around about six inches above the soil surface. Snip off any shoots below the graft union as those pesky shoots will sap energy from the desired plant, and produce, if at all, inconsequential or tasteless fruits.

The majority of dwarf citrus used as container or houseplants tend to grow between four and six feet tall, and do best in pots ranging from 12 to 16 inches in diameter, although some popular cultivars can be grown in containers as small as eight inches.

In milder climates, dwarf trees can reach up to nine to 12 feet when grown in halved whiskey barrels or redwood tubs. Around here, though, citrus must be taken indoors before any danger of frost, and most of us would rather not lug a several hundred pound giant into a standard family room.

To keep your dwarf citrus in check, you will actually borrow some techniques from the world of bonsai. Root pruning is usually required every three years or so, which will control overall growth, while also allowing you to replenish soil and soil nutrients. Without root pruning, you will have to continually repot your specimen until it becomes a behemoth.

To begin, carefully remove the plant from its pot and use a sharp knife or pruning shears (or even a pruning saw) to trim off several inches of root from around the sides and bottom of the root ball. Use a standard container soil mix to replace and reposition the plant at its previous height in the pot.

Incidentally, root pruning is often traumatic for many novices, who are more comfortable with watering and feeding their plants. But fear not, eventually everyone gets used to it, and your tree will continue to thrive and flourish for many years, possibly even dozens or more.

Ongoing care for your dwarf citrus requires plenty of bright light and even exposure. Be sure to slowly rotate containers every week or so. After all, no one likes a lopsided lemon tree.

Dwarf citrus prefer evenly moist soil. Do not allow the soil to completely dry out, and do not waterlog the soil or allow the plant to sit in standing water. Many practitioners consider an inexpensive moisture meter indispensable and as important as a good pair of pruning shears. Plan to water a bit more frequently than you might with other houseplants, perhaps every three to four days, especially during warm, dry weather.

Note that citrus are heavy feeders, especially as frequent watering will leach out water-soluble nutrients like nitrogen. It is recommended to use a fertilizer with a ratios two to three times higher in nitrogen than potassium and phosphorous (an N-P-K of 3-1-1). Be sure to use a complete fertilizer periodically to replenish essential micronutrients.

Of course, the most important element in dwarf citrus cultivation is selecting a plant that will intoxicate you with its fragrance and tickle your taste buds.

The choices are delicious in their own right, ranging from typical naval oranges, tangerines, lemons, true limes and grapefruits, to a host of hybrids with special characteristics. For the most part, growers have selected varieties specifically for container and indoor use which will do well in relatively cool environments. You do not have to replicate Floridian heat to achieve sweet and luscious fruit.

Among oranges, some of the most readily available and favored are Trovita, with a thin skin, which is equally prized for juice or eating. Satsuma oranges, sometimes considered a mandarine, like Valencia, are smaller, with an easy-to-peel fruit and a truly intoxicating aroma from spring-borne blooms which last up to a full month.

And while oranges might be the first citrus variety you are considering, spare a thought for the lemon tree. While most citrus bloom in the spring and produce fruit the following winter (or later), lemons actually bloom throughout the year, providing four seasons of fragrance, and year-round fruit. The most popular varieties include Lisbon, Eureka and Meyer, the latter of which is thought to be a cross between a sour orange and a lemon, and is perhaps the most popular variety of all thanks to its somewhat sweeter, slightly tangerine flavor.

Limes aren’t only for margaritas and gin-and-tonics! In addition to favorites like Bearss Seedless, one of the most intriguing offerings is Kaffir (or Thai) lime. In addition to tangy juice and a zesty zest, the glossy, dark green leaves of this variety can be chopped or julienned and used much like lemon-grass in Thai and other related Indonesian cuisine.

And while grapefruit are available, why not explore the exciting world of hybrids. For example, consider the increasingly popular Minneola Tangelos, or Honeybell, a cross between tangerines and grapefruit. This juicy, bell-shaped find offers a bright, reddish-orange skin, easily peeled like its tangerine ancestor, and sharing both a tartness and intense tangerine flavor.

Clearly, while these varied citrus trees may be dwarf in size, the selection, flavors, fragrance, and rewards of raising them are truly enormous.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, October 10, 2014

Great Gourds! Pumpkins & More

As you select and prepare to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, you should pause to reflect on the vast impact this humble gourd has had on our cultural history.

Pumpkins generally trace their origins to Central America, and collections of seed have been found in Mexico dating back several thousand years. Today, pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica, and have found their way into our legends and traditions, kitchens, kitschy competitions, and media.

In literature, we should remember poor Ichabod Crane, knocked for a loss by a pumpkin lobbed by the headless horseman of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” or even Cinderella’s enchanted carriage. Then, of course, there is the now classic book and television special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” or the more edgy Pumpkin King, in Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” to say nothing of the early 90’s band, Smashing Pumpkins.

Culinary uses range from traditional pumpkin pie filling and pumpkin butter, to protein-rich seeds, which can be roasted and salted. The meat of the pumpkin can also be boiled or fried, diced or pureed, and has found its way as a filling for sweet Italian ravioli, soups, and numerous vegetarian dishes. Some microbreweries even produce a seasonal pumpkin ale.

Lately, florists have gotten into the act and use pumpkins as containers to fill with autumn-themed flowers as centerpieces or gift baskets.

If these notions have you seeing orange, then keep in mind that pumpkins come in a host of colors, from the red “Rouge D’Etant” to varieties in gold, buff, greenish-blue, and blue. New cultivars named “Casper” or “Baby-Boo” offer white pumpkins, which might be particularly ghoulish when carved.

Another important variety includes the giant pumpkins, perfect for competitions. Gourd gardeners are now approaching the 1,500 pound barrier on individual specimens. The 1,000 pound mark was broken in 1996 with the variety “Atlantic Giant,” and within the past several years a 1,458 pound specimen made its way into the Guinness Book of Records. There are also articles about a man who grew more than 2,700 pounds of pumpkin on a single vine.

Another somewhat less-dignified competition includes the popular “pumpkin flings” held each year, such as the “World Championship Punkin Chunkin” in Delaware. Approximately 30,000 people gather to watch medieval style catapults, 100 foot-long cannons, and four-story tall slingshots shoot ten-pound pumpkins up to 4,000 feet through the air.

However, pumpkins no doubt have their greatest appeal when artfully carved and illuminated as Jack-o’-Lanterns for Halloween. And while this tradition is relatively new, especially in the New World, its origins extend back thousands of years into the misty past.

We begin with Celts celebrating the “Feast of Samhain” on November 1. The feast takes its name from the Gaelic Samhraidhreadh, meaning summer’s end, and is a celebration of the final harvest, which featured bonfires, food, dancing, and costumes. It is also an important mystical time, the start of a new year, when the transition between seasons opens a doorway into the realm of spirits.

Samhain is also identified as a godlike individual, sometimes defined as a “lord of the dead.” This mythic figure is depicted carrying a lantern or spectral fire, with which he guides lost and roaming spirits to the supernatural realm. His appearance is also associated with Will-o’-the-Wisp, or Welsh “Corpse Candles,” ghostly flames which move over bogs and through cemeteries.

The Feast of Samhain began its “conversion” to Halloween in 844, when Pope Gregory transferred the Christian feast for “All Saints” or “All Hallows” (meaning “holy”) from May 13 to November 1, to coincide with the Celtic “pagan” festival.

As centuries passed and traditions fused, the figure of Samhain guiding spirits with a spectral light was seemingly recast by Irish storytellers as a Christianized Jack-o’-Lantern. Incidentally, “jack” is no more than a term for any common man, and therefore Jack-o’-Lantern simply means “man with a lantern.”

The tragic legend of Jack holds that he was an inveterate prankster whose cunning ran afoul of the devil himself. Upon his death Jack finds that he is barred from heaven for never having performed an unselfish act, and similarly banned from hell. Doomed to a twilight existence between worlds, Jack carves a turnip and creates a lantern to guide his way, lighting it with an infernal ember coaxed from the devil.

The tradition of carving lanterns out of turnips and lighting them with embers or oil continued for centuries among Irish households. Moreover, like the medieval practice of carving gargoyles on cathedrals to scare off malevolent forces, the Irish carved ghastly visages into their turnips to ward off those evil spirits who roamed the countryside.

In time, of course, Irish immigrants brought their turnip carving to the new world, where they happily discovered a much larger gourd suitable for carving. And yet, one has to wonder what the ancient Celts and their Druid priests might have made of “punkin chunkin.” We will have to ask them when they show up again on the next Samhain.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, October 06, 2014

Leafy Problems Become Healthy Lawns

Autumn is perhaps the most mellow and reflective season of the year. Shorter days encourage reading in the evening while crisp air and colorful vistas invite weekend hikes and trips to the countryside. Regrettably, too many people waste their precious weekends raking leaves into piles or shatter the quiet peace of sunny afternoons with leaf blowers. There is a better solution.

Rather than trying to rid your lawn of fallen leaves, you should actually consider leaving them where they are. It is nature’s way to recycle, after all. Certainly no one is raking up and bagging the leaves which fall in wooded parks and forests. Given a bit of time, all of the leaves are transformed by worms, bacteria and other organisms into rich humus, which will continue to feed trees, shrubs, and other plants year after year for millennia.

Your yard is simply an extension of the same natural process. Trees around your property draw nutrients and minerals from the soil, converting those elements into new leaves and branches. By raking up those leaves, you essentially short-circuit the natural cycle by which nutrients are returned to the soil. After a number of years, the soil will lose its fertility. In fact, carting off leaves and grass clippings is akin to strip mining, ultimately affecting the health of everything you are trying to grow.

Spreading costly fertilizers on your lawn may restore some nutrients, but not all of the vital minerals and organic matter needed for healthy, vigorous plants. Leaves, on the other hand, contain all of the nutrients and micronutrients your lawn needs. The trick is getting those leaves back into the soil without smothering your lawn in the process.

Enter the lawnmower. For the past ten years, almost all new lawnmowers sold have been mulching mowers. After decades of bagging clippings, a majority of homeowners have learned that it is best to “grasscycle” their lawn clippings when they mow. Clippings left in place quickly decompose and provide nutrients to keep the lawn healthy.

Your lawnmower can now do double-duty as a leaf-mulcher. Mower blades can easily shred whole leaves into small pieces, approximately one-tenth their original size. Your once-daunting bounty of leaves will disappear into a thin layer of tiny particles easily digested by worms and bacteria. In fact, a healthy earthworm population is capable of dragging a one-inch layer of organic matter down into their underground burrows in just a few months. Unseen by human eyes, they are diligently loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free. Perhaps you should think of your mower as a food processor for worms!

Begin your regimen of leaf-mulching by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the chute on a rear-discharge machine. Run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves. Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Do not wait until every last leaf has fallen before getting started.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to begin on the outside perimeter of your lawn, blowing your chopped leaves onto unmowed areas, and continue mowing inward. This will keep the leaf particles on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Some savvy gardeners like to direct the discharge of shredded leaves into ground cover areas or under foundation plantings where organic matter is also welcome.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to apply the shredded material as a mulch two to four inches thick under your trees and shrubs. Do not pile the mulch directly against tree trunks.

Shredded leaves can also be applied to other planting beds, such as perennial borders and herb gardens. Avoid applying mulch until after the first hard freeze. A two to three inch mulch layer will help maintain a uniform soil temperature all winter and protect tender root systems. The mulch blanket will also prevent frost upheaval caused by frequent thawing and refreezing, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials.

Naturally, the leaf mulch will also feed your plants by recycling nutrients, conserve soil moisture during dry spells, and prevent the emergence of weeds.

You can also add your shredded leaves to a compost pile or bin. The smaller leaf particles decompose in about 75 percent of the time required by whole leaves, and you can further add a astonishing volume of shredded leaves into the bin, which is useful for properties with numerous mature trees. In addition, if you find that you are cutting some grass while running over the leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of materials to ensure an effective, fast-working compost pile. Your shredding efforts may even reward you with nutrient-rich compost ready for use in the Spring.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, September 29, 2014

Autumn: Turn Over a New Leaf

Glorious Autumn! Keat's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is also (alas) the season of the rake. It seems that you spend the better part of your precious weekends just raking up leaves. And just when you have gotten them under control, along comes a brisk gust of wind, a sprinkling of rain, and your lawn is covered all over again. Groan! Time to drag out the rake once more.

Here is a solution to simplify your fall and improve the long-term health and vigor of your lawn, trees, and garden beds:

Mulch ado about leaves.
There are a large number of expensive, awkward, and sometimes useful products being hawked to suck up your leaves and turn them into mulch. There are blower-vacs which blow leaves into a pile which you can then suck up and shred. There are chipper-shredders with elephant trunks that also allow you to suck up and shred leaves, although you have to rake them into piles first. And lawn jockeys with disposable incomes can check out the over $1,200 self-propelled machines which act like gas-powered vacuum cleaners on your lawn (watch out for small pets).

Mower for less.
These contraptions may not be the solution for you. However, if you are like most homeowners, you may not have realized that your lawn mower is already a deluxe leaf mulcher in its own right. And perhaps the easiest way to deal with leaves is to mow them right back into the lawn itself. Forget back-breaking raking and bagging!

Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Deeper "drifts" might need to be partially raked first -- or plan to run back and forth over the leaves several times. And do not worry if your model is not a dedicated mulching mower, any type of mower will do.

Start your do-it-yourself "mulchinator" by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the discharge chute on a rear-discharge machine. Then run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to start on the outside perimeter of your lawn and start mowing inward. This will keep the leaf-bits on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Of course, some folks like to "blow" shredded leaves into ground cover areas, under foundation plantings, or into wooded areas, adding to the organic content of soils there, which is another option.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

Stay out of the gutter!
It is important not to blow whole or shredded leaves into streets, storm drains, or nearby streams. Those innocent-looking particles can create problems for sensitive aquatic life by suffocating plants, fish eggs, and insect larvae, clouding the water, tying up oxygen, and altering the stream's pH (increasing toxic acidity). And that is also why you should never rake leaves into the street or gutter: leaf leachate always ends up in your neighborhood stream.

Too many leaves?
The swirling mass of leaves may seem daunting at first, but the final particle size will be one-tenth of the original leaf. This will make it easily digestible by worms and bacteria. Skeptics often voice a concern that shredding leaves into turf areas will overwhelm and kill their lawn. Not at all! In fact, research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that earthworms will actually drag a one-inch deep layer of organic matter into their burrows in just a few months, loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free.

Numerically, while you may imagine that all of those leaves will add up to far too much organic matter for your lawn, the fact is that 30 tall paper bags full of leaves, once shredded, will break down within a season to about one cubic yard of leaf mold or compost. Applied to your lawn as a topdressing, you would only be able to cover about 48 square feet (a six foot by eight foot patch). In fact, to topdress a lawn properly, most savvy gardeners have to import tons of commercial compost above and beyond the compost they make at home! Fear not: you will never have too many leaves or too much organic matter!

Your lawn needs leaves.
For decades, homeowners have bagged their grass clippings and leaves and sent them off to a landfill. And lawn chemical salespeople successfully and profitably sold the idea that healthy lawns needed bimonthly fertilizer and pesticide applications. Times have fortunately changed. The fact is that lawns and gardens can be maintained organically, for the most part, and without toxic inputs, just by recycling the natural materials already in place. When you bag up your clippings and leaves, you are short-circuiting the natural recycling process.

Think of the cycle this way: tree roots absorb water, minerals, and a host of nutrients from the soil. These materials are used to add girth to the tree trunk and boughs, set forth new branches, grow more roots, and grow leaves, flowers, and fruits or seeds. In a natural setting, such as a forest or woodlot, leaves, small twigs, blossoms, and fruits drop to the ground and slowly decompose, returning all of the original organic building blocks to the soil for future use.

What happens when you bag up leaves? How is that organic matter going to get back to the soil for the tree to use in coming years? You may think that by fertilizing your lawn you are returning everything the tree needs. Wrong! Of the more than one dozen major and minor nutrients that plants need to grow, how many are in your bag of fertilizer? And what about the organic matter that creates humus, the very soul of soil itself?

Bagging leaves and grass is equivalent to strip mining. The minerals, nutrients, and organic matter are continually stripped away year after year. Eventually, without those vital materials, your trees, your garden, and your lawn will start to suffer. It is time to undo this damage by getting that organic matter back into the soil. And you can easily start just by mowing your leaves into your lawn.

It's in the bagger!
There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to take the shredded material and start using it to mulch some of your trees and shrubs. This is also true for gardeners with some of the fancier shredding equipment. Apply up to four inches deep, and your mulch layer will also act as a blanket to prevent frost upheaval in planting beds, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials. You will also be feeding and protecting your plants and preventing weed growth for almost a full year.

A compost pile or bin is another excellent half-way point for shredded leaves. Those smaller leaf particles break down in less than half the time of whole leaves, and you can fit a prodigious quantity of shredded leaves into your bin. Also, if you find that you are cutting some grass while shredding leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials to ensure a hot, fast-working compost pile.

Recommended chores.
Mulching leaves into lawns is just the first step toward a naturally healthy lawn and environment. You should also consider aerating your lawn by either renting a core-aerating machine (about $70) or hiring a lawn care firm ($75 and up depending on overall lawn size). Aerating breathes life into compacted soils and helps organic matter filter deeper into subsoils and root zones. You should also test your soil with a kit from your county or municipality's local Cooperative Extension Service (costs are about ten dollars) to determine proper nutrient application rates. Your soil test will also indicate the type and quantity of lime your lawn needs; local soils are naturally acidic. And don't forget: fall is the only beneficial time to consider feeding your lawn -- only use a slow-release or organic nutrient source to feed the soil and your lawn's roots all winter long.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Primer on Autumn Lawn Care

Homeowners often make the mistake of thinking that the secret to a good lawn is lots of work in the spring. However, perhaps the most vital period of time for healthy turf is the fall, where proper feeding and care will result in a naturally lush and beautiful lawn in the spring, which will keep its green all year long.

Grasscycling for All Season Lawn Care

Healthy lawn care year-round starts and ends with grasscycling -- leaving those nutrient-rich clippings on the lawn when you mow. Do not be fooled by the old myth of bagging clippings when the weather turns nippy. Clippings can be left behind right up to the last mowing of the year. Worms will continue to pop out of their burrows and drag clippings deeper into the soil as long as soil is not frozen, and bacteria will continue to help break down the organic clippings even under a mantle of snow!

Grasscycling Means Leaf-cycling

As leaves fall onto lawn areas, your lawnmower can be used as a mobile chipper-shredder to run over the leaves and shred them into smaller particles. No raking or bagging required! You can continue to mulch leaves right into your soil all autumn long provided that the layer of fallen leaves does not exceed more than half and inch. It also helps if the leaves are primarily dry. Those colorful leaf “bits” provide much-needed organic matter for your soil. Soils that are organically well-fed are healthy soils which will easily grow healthy lawns.

Fall is Feeding Time

One of the major causes for turf disease and unhealthy lawns is overfeeding and fertilizing at the wrong time of year. Bad feeding practices and relying on synthetic “quick fix” fertilizers and lawn chemicals can have long term harmful impacts on your lawn and on the environment, especially groundwater and streams. To ensure a healthy lawn and environment, feed your lawn now and do it right.
  • Use your soil test results to determine proper application rates. If you haven’t tested your soil -- do it now! Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office for a reliable five-ten dollar test kit.
  • Underfeed rather than overfeed; too much fertilizer leads to disease and thatch. Also, grasscyclers are already recycling a substantial amount of nutrients every time they mow.
  • Lawns should “eat” slowly. Avoid quick-release or water-soluble fertilizers. Generally, using a organic mix or low-analysis natural fertilizer (contents usually include bloodmeal, bonemeal, rock phosphate, and various manures), will provide plant roots will most of the nutrients they’ll require all year long. If synthetics are more readily available, make sure that the fertilizer is water-insoluble, or you’ll lose most of the nutrient benefit after the first rain.
  • Compost is a near complete meal -- and hefty dose of valuable organic matter -- for most lawns. You can use your own home-grown compost or purchase a commercial product, the most common being Milorganite, although many communities (and zoos!) often sell composted leaves and biosolids locally, in addition to various composted manure products. Compost can be spread over a lawn area as a topdressing about one-quarter inch thick.
  • Apply lime and other rock minerals, as indicated by your soil test. Normally, ground calcitic limestone is preferred over dolomitic lime, unless your soil suffers from a magnesium deficiency. Using ground rather than powdered lime will also ensure that the lime breaks down slowly during the winter and spring without washing off.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Aerating lawns is perhaps one of the most beneficial measures to ensure healthy soil and vigorous roots. Core aeration, which pulls plugs out of the soil, is the most effective method, and can be done by a lawncare contractor -- or by renting the equipment. The cost is usually the same either way. Aeration helps air reach organisms in the soil which break down organic matter and produce nutrients for the grass roots. It also allows organic matter, like leaf and grass particles or compost, to enter deeper into the plants’ root zones, improving soil and lawns all at once. The soil “plugs” also provide minerals for the soil surface.

Going to Seed

This is your last chance to get cool weather grass growing in bare patches. For trouble areas, it is best to roughen up the area with a rake, topdress with a thin layer of compost, and then apply the appropriate variety of grass seed and water evenly.

Remember that fall is the real beginning of the lawn care season. A little extra work now will allow you to enjoy those longer, warmer days of spring and summer a lot more next year.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser