Category Archives: Fruit

Lemon Tree Very Pretty

At least, I think it is a lemon tree. I can tell by the shiny tear-shaped leaves that it is a citrus of some sort, but it could be a lime or a tangerine, rather than a lemon. The person who would know for sure is my former colleague and longtime friend, Frank Miranti, who died suddenly about this time last year. He is the rightful owner of this tree, which he very likely started from seed and cared for religiously through many seasons: watering daily, misting the leaves, fertilizing every sixty to ninety days, pruning in the spring after the fruit had dropped and the tree had been brought back outside, dosing with beneficial bacteria culture in the fall, checking carefully for signs of scale or mineral deficiency, treating any problems as soon as they appeared. The tree is nearly five feet tall and in a fourteen-inch pot; it was one of the smaller ones he owned.

I still can’t believe he is gone. I keep going over those first few days in my mind, when those who knew him were reeling from the initial shock, calling and emailing everyone we could think of who knew Frank or who might have information about what had happened, and discovering in the process previously unknown connections among his various circles of friends. I first learned something was wrong on a Monday when my ex-husband called me at the office and asked if I knew why there were police cars in front of Frank’s house. I immediately called the office where Frank worked at the time to see what I could find out; the woman who answered the phone was crying when she told me that he had died.

Over the next days and weeks, we tried to piece together what had happened between the time Frank left work on Friday and the time he failed to show up for work on Monday. According to coworkers, Frank seemed fine when he left work at the end of the week. From what we could gather, he had then taken his youngest sister grocery shopping; after that, he had gone to visit a friend in the hospital. That was the last anyone saw him. His sister thought she remembered him saying he might not be at the farmers market at 8:00 on Saturday, which was his usual time, because he had been out so late on Friday. His sisters from St. Louis wondered why he didn’t answer his phone. Later one of his neighbors noticed that Frank had not been in his garden all weekend. No one recalled him being sick or depressed, although several people commented that he had been working hard in recent weeks. By Monday, when he didn’t call in to the office, it was becoming apparent that something was wrong, and someone contacted the police, who found him dead in his bed of unknown causes. Weeks later, after completing the police investigation and running numerous forensic tests, they still had not identified a cause of death. He was forty-nine years old.

I had known Frank since graduate school, when he was writing heavily textured poems about his grandmother from Sicily and I was writing spare poems about my stillborn daughter. We both lived near Stephens College campus at the time, and he used to walk past my place on his way to and from the University every day. Even before we met, we couldn’t help but notice each other. He had long curly black hair and a full dark beard. I had hair down to my waist. I thought he looked like Jesus. He thought I was the perfect Earth mother. We first noticed each other the day my husband and I and our three-year-old son moved to town. Frank told me later that when he saw us unloading our small antique printing press from the moving truck, he knew he had to get to know “that hippie family.”

During that first fall, we saw each other occasionally at poetry readings or other campus events and spoke when we met on the street, but we did not really get to know each for a couple of years, when we found ourselves in the same graduate program. We took several poetry workshops together, taught parallel sections of freshman composition, co-edited the English department’s literary magazine, and served as poetry advisors for the Missouri Review. I was pregnant during the years we were in school, and Frank worried over me like a mother hen, fussing at me when I skipped lunch or drank too much coffee, offering me rides home when the weather was bad or he thought I looked tired, covering my classes for me when I lost another baby, bringing flowers to the hospital after my second son was born. After graduate school, Frank and I worked as editors at several different University offices off and on over the years—at an assessment center, at an early childhood center, and in distance education. He was a skilled editor, a conscientious worker, and a loyal friend.

We also shared an interest in gardening, and we often shared cuttings or seeds, but Frank had the most amazing Mediteranean-style garden you could ever hope to find in the Midwest. In addition to the citrus trees, he also grew pineapples and jasmine and figs and grapes in his lush garden space. Some of his plants, including one he called the Grand Duke, were descended from plants his grandmother brought over from Sicily.  Frank loved to share cuttings and fruits from his garden, as well as advice. He was a font of wisdom about organic gardening methods; those who stopped by his garden could expect to receive a personal tour, complete with samples of whatever was in season and answers to any questions one might ask. He also routinely brought the fruits of his garden to the office to share, including lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes, as well as more exotic offerings. One year he offered bundles of grape vines to anyone who wanted them, along with detailed instructions about how to care for them the first, second, and third year. Another time he brought in fresh figs for those who wanted a taste. He brought in small batches of his special fertilizer or mineral supplements or fungicides to share with other gardeners in the office.  Several times he brought me a single jasmine blossom in a small plastic vial; the sweet scent filled the entire office and lasted for days.

When his sister brought the small citrus tree to me, she also brought me a two-page single-spaced set of instructions that she had found while going through Frank’s papers. He had written them several years earlier when he decided to give away his prize lemon tree, after he began having back trouble and the tree had grown too large to carry up to his third-floor apartment every fall and back down to the garden every spring, even with assistance from the homeless men Frank occasionally hired to help out around the place.  That particular tree was well over eight feet tall by then, with full spreading branches. The tree had been in his family for years but had never bloomed until Frank took it over. In fact, the first year it began to fruit, Frank thought at first that the tree had developed gall, until he took a closer look and discovered that the hard green pea-shaped growths were in fact lemons. Under Frank’s care, the tree continued to bear fruit in a sunny window in his apartment, some years producing dozens of large lemons, which Frank would always share with friends and neighbors.

I have been doing my best to follow Frank’s instructions for caring for the tree his sister gave me,  although I did not have the exact brand of fertilizer and mineral supplement he called for, and I did not always apply the fertilizer ten days before the full moon, as he  recommended. I also did not prune the tree in the spring, as he would have done, because I wan’t sure whether it was too late by the time I received the tree and moved it outside. And I am sorry to say I did not water it every day or mist the leaves more often. Frank’s instructions warn that if the tree is underwatered, the topmost leaves will start to curl, which I did notice a time or two. Regardless, the tree survived its first two seasons with me in reasonably good shape. I am trusting that Frank knew what he was talking about when he said not to worry if the tree yellows up a bunch of leaves and drops them for about three weeks in October/November.  I have drenched the soil twice now with Knock Out Gnats, as instructed, and moved the tree inside for the winter, where I have placed it in my sunniest south-facing window. I hope I can keep it alive and maybe even coax it to bloom and bear fruit.

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Strawberry Patch

Sometimes I like to think that weeds are just plants growing where I don’t want them to be, but other times I think there is something especially pernicious about weeds that makes them different from other plants. Today I am choosing to believe the former as I weed the strawberry patch, pulling out everything that is not strawberry, including numerous flowers that I happily allow to grow in other parts of my garden—Shasta daisies, lambs ear, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, asters, and columbine. But that creates a dilemma when I get to the edge of the strawberry patch. At what point do the  strawberries themselves become weeds as they send runners out into other parts of the garden and cross over into the sections claimed by columbine or iris?

I wish I had kept better records last year when I first planted the strawberries (by which I mean I wish I had kept any records at all). I can no longer remember how many or what kind I planted. As I was weeding the patch, I ran across a couple of plastic markers, which I hoped would clue me in, but one said “curly parsley” and the other said “lavender.” At the very least, it would be nice to know whether I planted June-bearing or everbearing plants.

My gardening encyclopedia tells me that strawberries are grown to some extent in every state in the Union but that different varieties are suited to different parts of the country. A guide published by University of Missouri extension says that “no fruit is more likely to provide home gardeners with success and satisfaction than strawberries” and lists ten popular varieties that are well adapted to our state. Of these I recognize the names Surecrop and Allstar, so perhaps I planted one of those varieties. The guide also lists several everbearing and day-neutral varieties commonly grown in Missouri; of these, the name Ozark Beauty sounds familiar, although the guide says it is not truly everbearing, as it will produce a crop in the spring and a small crop in the fall, with little or no crop in between. Maybe that’s what I planted.

If the berries are Surecrop, they will, according to the guide, be large, light-colored, and tart, and will ripen in early midseason; if Allstars, they will be large, glossy, orange-red, and firm, and will ripen in late midseason. Ozark Beauties will produce medium-sized, light-colored berries of average quality. Surecrop is described as one of the most “productive, vigorous and disease-resistant cultivars”; Allstar is supposedly “resistant to red stele and verticillium wilt and tolerant of leaf diseases.” Ozark Beauties are described as  “extremely variable in its performance in Missouri.”

The brochure then goes on to describe the problems facing strawberries, including various kinds of root rot, leaf spots, wilt, and mold; insects, including tarnished plant bugs, leafrollers, mites, weevils, slugs, and nematodes; as well as frost injury, nutrient deficiences, inadequate pollination, and abnormally high temperatures.  If the plants somehow manage to fruit despite all this, the birds may eat them all.  With so much going against them, I wonder how they can possibly provide “success and satisfaction” for the home gardener. I am glad I didn’t read about these problems last year, or I might not have planted strawberries at all.

Regardless of what variety I planted, I was apparently supposed to remove the blossoms the first year and train the runners, and I should have mulched the plants in late November or early December. As I recall, we allowed the berries to develop and happily ate a few on top of our ice cream, and we allowed the runners to take off in all directions away from the mother plants, absolutely untrained. We’ll see what happens this year.