Thursday, January 13, 2011

The harvest has begun: I picked the first fruit of the season this week. Not only that, but it was the first fruit I harvested from the particular plant. The fruit was a Sunquat, planted in a pot a year and a half ago. It summers outdoors and winters indoors, basking in sunlight streaming through a south-facing window.

Not many people have heard of Sunquats. I hadn’t. Citrus plants hybridize freely and Sunquat is one of many citrus hybrids, this one a mating of kumquat (botanically Fortunella, rather than Citrus, but very closely related) and Meyer lemon. I happen to be a big fan of the tart flesh and spicy, sweet skins of kumquat fruits. I also happen to be a big fan of Meyer lemon, which is not a true lemon but is probably a hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange. Meyer lemons are juicy and somewhat sweet, with a flowery aroma. They also bear prolifically. As testimonial to their precocity, I once had a cutting that flowered soon after rooting, when it was only a few inches tall.

So what could be bad about combining the best of kumquat and Meyer lemon? A Sunquat! The skin was sour without picking up any of the spicy tang of a kumquat’s skin. The flesh was much less puckery than kumquat or lemon, but was uninteresting, just bland. Perhaps harvesting a bit underripe, before the skins turn full yellow, will put some pizazz in a Sunquat. If not, I’ll stick to Meyer lemons and kumquats, each on their own.
Beautiful. Right from the sky. A white blanket of “poor man’s manure.” That’s what gardeners and farmers have called snow.
In fact, snow does take some nitrogen from the air and bring it down to ground level for plant use in spring. Not that much, though. Just a few shovelfuls of real manure could supply the same amount of nitrogen as a blanket of snow.

Mostly, what I like about the 15 inch deep fluffy whiteness now on the ground is the way it insulates what’s beneath it. Fluctuating winter temperatures wreak havoc on plants, coaxing them awake and asleep and awake and asleep as air temperatures go up and down. Each time plants are awakened, they become more susceptible to subsequent cold, the whole problem exacerbated with borderline hardy plants. Anticipating cold weather and snow, last fall I laid the 10 foot long canes of my Doyle Thornless blackberries down on the ground. They’ve been thankfully swallowed beneath snow.
Hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata) is another plant to benefit from snow cover. It’s not a citrus, but a close Citrus relative that is cold-hardy as far north as New Jersey. Still, I planted some seeds outdoors a few years ago and their roots survive winter cold. The tops die back but resprout each spring. The deeper this winter’s snow and the longer it stays deep, the more of the plants’ stems will survive till spring. Perhaps, helped along with global warming, enough of the above ground parts of the plants will survive to reward me one year with sweet-smelling blossoms and, less appealing, their very puckery fruits.
Last fall, I cut some stems from my black currants and grapes into 8 inch lengths. In the bare ground between the dwarf apple trees, I scratched some lines and pushed a straight-bladed shovel into the ground on that line. Levering the handle of the shovel opened up just enough space in which to shove one or two of those cut stems, distal ends up, right up to their topmost buds. Then I moved along the scratched line, pushed the shovel in again, shoved in more stems, and so on down each line. If all goes well, each of those stems should have grown into a good sized plant that I can dig up and transplant next autumn.
That is, unless alternating freezing and thawing of the soil heaves those stems up and out of the ground. I’ve seen it happen, a row of carefully inserted stems sitting on top of the ground by winter’s end.
Which is another reason I’m thankful for the snow. In addition to protecting plants from cold, the blanket modulates soil temperatures, keeping cold soil cold, which is how I’d like it to remain until spring. I could have -- should have -- thrown some fluffy, organic mulch, such as leaves or straw, over the stems to do the same thing. But I didn’t. I hope the snow keeps.


  1. I would be irritated, to tend to a potted plant, waiting on its fruit, only to find, after a year and half, that it is uninteresting!! (But I do enjoy your blog, Sir!)

  2. I subsequently read somewhere to let Sunquats get really, really ripe before harvesting them. I would imagine that would make them more bland. Anyway, I am letting the get really, really ripe, and then I'll give them another taste.