Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life and Death in the Garden

I grew up helping my Farm Agent grandfather in the garden. I have fond memories of throwing fertilizer (which I don't touch these days), and digging trenches (I now use a drip system). Ah yes gardening in the 70s. My family also had a substantial (1.5 acre) orange grove, and as tradition dictates, I was conscripted child labor for it which I, of course, hated at the time and only after leaving did I realize what an unique experience that was.

So because it's in my blood, I do garden a little. I think of myself as the most non-serious of gardeners. just a few plants in the planters and a few herbs and others off of the edges of the yard. Ok, I did put in a drip system (who wants to have to remember to water?) and, well, I do mix my own soils, but that's because I read a Martha Steward book while on disability with carpal tunnel years ago (my mother gave it to me and she seemed totally surprised that I actually read it) and realized just how simple it is and just how much the plants love it. And I did rearrange and add to the tomato cage so it would actually support a 6' tall tomato plant. But I'm so not serious. Really. And I'm digressing (I think). This is where my namesake Degeneres says "My point, and I do have one ..."

There is a certain element of playing God when you garden. What gets put in and where, and more to this point, when to take something out. For the most part, I let plants I put in live their lives in peace save for necessary pruning and trimming. (Invading plants I have no problem being vicious with - especially vines which can be really evil.) With annuals that's easy. What prompted this entry is that I just took out most of one of the basil plants and made pesto - yum. With perennials that can present some difficulty and now that I've been a home owner for a while the time does come where it makes sense to end the life of something you helped give life to.

In the case where a plant is injured and isn't recovering it's a pretty easy decision. I had a lavender plant out in the sidewalk area that a kid rode a bicycle through and left it in a V form and after nursing it for a year (unfortunately you can't just cut them all the way back like you can with other plants) I gave up and took it out. Also, when my neighbors tree shaded my oregano the taste went away since it needs the sun to bring out the oil, so I pulled it out. Enough sun is an issue here. I plant Early Girl Tomatoes. It's Sept and only now are they ripening. Real early huh? Fortunately they're worth the wait.

But I now have a dilemma. I have this Orange tree (of course I do - How could I not?), a Washington Navel that I got at Orchard Supply. I've had it since 1993. I bought it as a dwarf and had it in a pot, but after I bought this house, I got tired of episodes of nearly killing it (because I'm bad about regular watering). So I put it in the ground and within a year, it completely forgot that it was a dwarf and is a very cheerfully happy full size orange tree. There's just one catch and this is my dilemma. It's appearing that it's not really hot enough in Alameda to make sweet oranges. Or at least where it's located. It gets plenty of sunshine, but it doesn't get the super direct, cook-the-brain sun for enough hours to bring out the sweetness. So I have an abundance of not very sweet oranges. After I pick them I leave them out in the sun for a few days and there is more sweetness but not as much as I (or anyone else) would like, and honestly I'm getting tired of the taste and I'm the only one who will eat them.

I've been doing this mucking about for a few years and now the tree is large enough to be really in the way. It just occurred to me that maybe I should consider taking it out, but deliberately killing a healthy tree (especially a tree as opposed to a relatively small plant) is so against my nature even though I have no attachment to its origin (like I would have if I'd smuggled one in from Southern California - yes, it's not legal because of a disease the oranges can get there). This tree came from OSH, nothing terribly special. I've given it quite a happy life for 16 years and now I want some payback, and I'm not getting it and we could really use the space these days.

The failure of this tree to produce sweet oranges is giving me pause in my other plan to put a tangerine in the front lawn. Tangerines have to be sweet. The front gets a lot more sun, but I don't know if it's enough. I suppose I could leave it in a pot for a couple of years and just move it around. As long as I put a watering system on it that should be ok. The only bummer is that I was going to put a full size one in and that won't work in a pot, but even a full size tree can live in a pot for a couple years.

But of course this doesn't help me to decide about the other tree. It's funny, as a tree it's perfectly happy it's just me putting my "publish or perish" "earn your keep" values on it. I suck at this God playing.

Reference that totally backs up my experience:

I leave the fruit on for as long as possible which helps - some.

For those feeling guilty about taking out a tree and they can't replace it they can support Plant A Tree:

Just doing some more googling for references and I came across:

Down a ways you see someone named Prichard say:

In Central Florida, I've lost a couple of trees to freezes. Even if they don't totally die, disease sets in and within a couple of years, the tree dies back to it's "sour-root" origins, i.e. the good graftings are killed off. When you start to get those long shoots with big thorns on them, that's sour-root. It produces some beautiful looking oranges, that are so sour and bitter, you'd think they were poison.
It's just sinking in. Maybe that's what happened to my tree. The sweet grafting died and all that was left was the full size sour-root stock. I don't see the big thorns that often though, but everything else totally fits. I'll see if I can talk to Four Winds in Fremont who was referenced in the first url. Four Winds were the people who told me about it not being legal to import cuttings from Southern California. I admitedly tried it anyway, but it never took and the oranges down south were allowed to pass away under a bulldozer (and 4831 N. Ohio, Yorba Linda, CA is the one place in the world that I won't go - though I do peek with Google maps once in a while.)

More confirmation here:
The tree froze, recovered but the fruit is "nasty" and they're asking about grafting.

I see grafting in my future.

At noon today I walked up to the trees and said
"You've been fooling me all this time."
I pick an orange and say
"You see this? It doesn't taste good."
It didn't see remotely intimidated.


Elf said...

I have a terrible time convincing myself to take out a healthy plant just from the perspective of "it's helping the atmosphere." I've gotten better through the years about Just Doing It. When I moved in here, took out an entire hedge and several trees to have room to do agility. There are a couple more hedges & a tree out front that probably ought to come out, too, but it's a lot of work.

I'm not in Alameda, so I don't have quite the same sun/heat issues. But I've had orange trees in 2 yards, now, and more often they're bitter but some years they're OK. I still don't eat very many of them. :-)

Ellen said...

I need to ask my eco-expert neighbor if there's a place where you can plant a replacement tree.

Or I guess I could support Plant a Tree:

Ellen said...

though I will be planting another tree...

Ellen said...

I've added a couple of references to the original blog entry.

Elf said...

Well, that's odd. Every orange tree I've had has had huge ugly nasty thorns. (I still have scabs from doing some pruning last week.) But I've inherited full-grown trees from previous residents, so who knows what happened to them as saplings. Interesting that cold is also noted as being required for good flavor? Maybe that's the trick--when it doesn't get cold enough it doesn't get sweet the same as whn it doesn't get hot enough? Interesting...

Ellen said...

One thing I refrained from complaining about but likely will eventually is dragging irrigation sprinklers down the rows of orange trees. Occasionally a thorn would get me, but that definitely could have been from root stock, but I got some nice scratches from them.

But what I hated was running face first into spiderwebs which created my ambivalence to spiders.

Ellen said...

Yeah I thought that was weird about needing cold too. We are talking about Florida and S. Calif. I'll need outside confirmation of that one. Interesting though.

Walked up to the orange tree at noon today saying "You have been putting one over one me all this time. [picks orange] You see these? They don't taste good." It didn't seem the least bit intimidated.