Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lemon Renaissance

The little potted Meyer lemon tree is finally coming into its own. There is a noticeable difference this season in size and abundance.

We acquired it by mail order in February 2009. It arrived in a cardboard box with the largest quantity of Styrofoam pellets I've ever encountered. It seemed to take forever to scoop them out and slowly uncover the tiny tree with two huge yellow lemons dangling like gaudy oversize earrings from twigs that could barely support them.

We gathered about five lemons the first year which I picked too soon in my eagerness, and none the second year because they kept falling off while still dark green and the size of a fingernail.

Whence this bumper crop? Maybe the time is right; it does take fruit trees a while to get going. Or perhaps it's the effects of compost tea and rock powder.

Each winter it needs protection from the frost. I've been watching the weather carefully and covering it sometimes when the forecasts skirt too close to 32 degrees. We've had no freezes yet. Will the lemons keep ripening even when frost-kissed? The label says it produces flowers and fruit year round in USDA Zones 9 and 10. We are Zone 10 so here's hoping for a Christmas harvest. B. says just to be safe we should bring it inside and make it into our Christmas tree. For one thing, it's already decorated!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Barnival" at Green String Farm

There's another crop of interns at Green String Farm. Last Saturday they put on their community event, so after I filled my cloth bags with lettuce and potatoes from the farm store -- there's no gardener's guilt in buying produce here to supplement our home-grown fare -- I wandered out to the "Barnival." This event was aimed at little kids so all the big kids were in costumes. Or maybe it was the lingering influence of Halloween, which is an over the top event in these parts.

Passing up the cider press (too much sugar) and the petting zoo (too crowded) I found myself at the transplant booth. Two interns (secretly dubbed by me as Sam Gamgee and Galadriel in honor of the little box of magic dirt that Galadriel bestowed on Sam) were giving away lettuce seedlings to any children who would do the transplanting themselves, right there at the booth. They kindly made an exception for a senior citizen.

With Butter lettuce seedling in hand (and secretly promising to do justice to this magic dirt), I continued my journey and found myself in the cavernous old barn which was lending its name to the event. The last time I was here, in August, this was a lecture hall. Now it was transformed into a huge storage area for the storable crops.

Admiring the ample bins of winter squash, threshed grain, and potatoes, I was glad all over again about discovering this local cornucopia. Well done, winter interns.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In Which I Discover an Ootheca

I was quietly watering the newly installed bed of fava bean seedlings that runs in a narrow strip along the back fence, when I noticed an odd protuberance from one of the fence boards. Our neighbor put up the fence just a few months ago so it still has the blond coloring of unfinished lumber. The strange little outcropping was the same color as the wood and could easily have been a knot hole or imperfection, but something about it made me look closer. It reflected light with the subtle luminosity of something alive.

To the touch it felt delicate and vulnerable -- not like wood at all, more like very fragile Styrofoam. Oval, about an inch long, with fine ridges and a large ridge down the middle like a zipper, it was firmly attached to the fence. Ahh, a new backyard mystery. What could it be?

Touching it triggered some long dormant memory of the praying mantis egg cases we kids used to find back in Virginia, along with a comical image of my mother flapping a dishcloth at swarms of tiny mantis nymphs that had just hatched out in our kitchen, hanging in wiggly green streamers from the cupboards and window ledges. We never found the egg case or figured out how it ended up in the kitchen. Clearly, an egg-laying mantis is resourceful.

The egg cases of memory were rounded and usually discovered adhering to a twig. This modern California version felt the same but looked quite different. Perhaps mantis resourcefulness includes adapting the shape of the egg case to the available surface.

On the hollyhocks only a few feet from the spot on the fence, I had recently seen a large pale green mantis with characteristic folded front legs, elongated body, narrow triangular face and bulbous eyes. The first one I had ever seen in this yard, it was gone by the time I came back with a camera.

On the internet it didn't take long at all to find photos of mantis egg cases that look exactly like the mystery object. As a bonus, I acquired a new word and a bit more insight into the whole process. The case is called an ootheca from the Greek roots for "egg" and "purse" or "pouch". It's the kind of word that carries a built in exclamation. "Ooooh, look at that, an ooooootheca!"

The mama mantis extrudes a lot of soft foamy goo to enclose her eggs. The goo hardens and becomes the ootheca, which keeps the brood safe through the winter until spring comes and hatching occurs. Evidently she can do this several times, so I am keeping my eyes open!!