Sow: getting professional help

One of the things that sold us on the Mortroski Midcentury was its age. Built in 1966, it had the openness and period details (wet bar, exposed brick fireplace) that we were looking for. We would have preferred a truly untouched, un-updated  home, but we didn’t find one that fit that bill during our search.

What we did find here is something we couldn’t add: big trees. As you might remember from one of my earlier posts, these beautiful old trees can cause plumbing problems. They also provide something that is very valuable in north Texas in the summer: shade.

In our backyard, we are fortunate to have a stately live oak tree. We do not know its age but its trunk is bigger around than my arms can reach. It is the reason the Mortroski Midcentury Urban Farm is in the far right strip of the yard since its branches shade the majority of the space. It is a home to squirrels and a producer of huge amounts of acorns.

The acorns are particularly problematic. A source of extra calories for George and his squirrel pals, the reason we can’t walk barefoot on our patio without getting out a broom or the leaf blower, and apparently a desirable commodity for hunters who use them at their deer leases (the black garbage bags we fill are frequently taken from our monthly yard waste pickup deposits), the acorns just keep on coming down. Usually they start falling in October, peaking in late November or December, but depending upon the weather, they can continue falling through spring.

But even though it was producing a bumper crop of acorns, we were worried about the tree. Neither Bruce nor I knew much about live oaks. There were some soft spots low on the trunk. There was a large spot that looked like the inside of the tree was being exposed. And a large branch was over our roof, just above the chimney so we were concerned about having a fire in our fireplace. Still, it was green and leafy and there were no visible signs of death. Its branches were majestic and full of leaves (and acorns).

Neighbors and friends speculated about the tree. Some gave us names of local landscapers who could take it down for cheap. Others suggested what we could do with the yard if we removed it. Things like pools, outdoor kitchens, an extended patio were mentioned. A few mentioned how sad it would be if it was gone.

We needed a professional opinion. We got the name of a reputable arborist from the company that helped us to revitalize our overgrown front yard so we’d know for certain what was wrong with the tree and if it was so ill that it needed to go. My heart sunk as I steeled myself against the bad news.

Well, the tree did not let me down. Yes, it needs some professional help. Most likely it has never been correctly pruned. It needs some cabling since it has been hit by lightning several times and it has a bit of weakness. It is crowding the magnolia tree. But it does not need to go.

The arborist and his crew will visit the tree next Monday. They’ll lighten up some of its branches. They’ll put the cabling in place. They’ll do what needs to be done. And they’ll let the tree continue to keep shading our house and providing acorns for George and the squirrels.

Sow: dream trees

When I moved from Savannah, Georgia to Southern California when I was in 7th grade, the fields of oranges everywhere captured my imagination. To see oranges growing in neat rows of trees and to smell the orange blossoms was just heavenly to me. Those orange groves at the Irvine Ranch are now covered with homes, not orange blossoms, and Orange County has pretty much completely lost its namesake.

Southern California was amazing to a 12 year old who really liked plants—especially ones that provided things you could eat. The farmers markets and even the grocery store were chock full of produce I had never seen before. You have to remember that having the produce selection we now have in the grocery stores is a relatively new development. Before we moved to Southern California, much of the vegetables and even some of the fruit our family ate was either frozen or canned.

Half way through 8th grade, we moved north to the San Francisco Bay Area. While, of course, I was sad to leave my friends and school, my new (to us) house had many things we didn’t have in Irvine’s densely packed tract neighborhoods. A backyard pool, perfect for a girl who loved swimming and swam competitively. But even more exciting were the trees. This house had three special trees: a lemon tree, a grapefruit tree, and best of all, an avocado tree.

All three trees were prolific producers. And yes, it is actually possible to get sick of avocados when they are constantly part of meals from breakfast (avocado omelets—delicious with monterey jack and topped with a bit of salsa), lunch (in every kind of sandwich as a mayo replacement), dinner (on salads, as salad, topped with seafood salads, mexican-inspired dishes, etc.). The avocados were small by our grocery store standards, about the size of an egg. But they were delicious.

The lemon tree came in handy nearly year ’round. The blossoms made the back patio smell divine. If we needed a lemon, lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon as a garnish, anything you could think of using lemons for, there was always plenty for the picking so it seemed to me. They were thick skinned and yielded only a bit of sharp acidic juice with a hint of orange. I now wonder if they were the prized Meyer lemons.

My father and I loved the grapefruit tree too. It produced orange-sized grapefruits. For weekend breakfasts, I would squeeze the juice by hand and make a pitcher of the fresh juice for the family. I suspect perhaps my father made after-work or weekend cocktails for himself and my mother by adding a bit of vodka because one day an electric juicer showed up and we began having pitchers of the juice at the ready.

I don’t know who planted those three trees. It may have been our eye doctor—his family lived in the house before we did. Or maybe the family before that. The trees were old. The lemon was trimmed into a bush, but the others were large (at least to a 13 year old) trees.

After experiencing life with those wonderful trees, I’ve always wanted some of my own. The Mortroski Midcentury Urban Farm currently has a peach tree, a plum tree and a baby fig tree that we planted last fall. The previous home owners neglected the peach and plum, but my dad, the son of farmers, showed me how to prune them to ensure that it not only produced fruit but also didn’t injure itself when the branches became too heavy. It rewarded us with plenty of fruit for the birds (very top of the tree), squirrels (ground and anywhere they could climb), and us (I grabbed a ladder and picked several weekends in a row). And I made delicious jam. Friends and family have already put in requests for more.

The final batch of 2012 jam, made in September with fruit I prepped and froze

The final batch of 2012 jam, made in September with fruit I prepped and froze

I’m not sure that the figs will make it to be turned into preserves. We love figs right from the tree. Maybe in a salad with a bit of cheese. With proscuito. I want to have so many figs that I am sick of them, then I will make fig jam. Last year our baby tree gave us 3 and the birds/squirrels/wind maybe another 3. But the nursery said I’d be surprised how fast it will grow. You see, this fig tree is a Texas native.

In the previous house, I attempted to grow a potted lime tree with cute little baby limes that the garden center told me would be perfect for slicing in half and shoving into the neck of a Mexican beer. I killed it, mostly because I had no clue how to take care of it. I’m guessing that it fried in the blazing Texas sun.

You see, citrus trees (and avocados too), do not really grow in north Texas. Despite our exceptionally hot weather from say March to the end of the October, our winters are unpredictable at best. We get snow (like Christmas Day 2012) that sometimes lingers. We get frost for several days in a row then it’s 80°F. Patio lemons and limes must be brought inside for the winter It’s definitely not California here. Down south, closer to Mexico, is where you must go if you want citrus to grow. Like those beautiful Texas Ruby grapefruit (had one for breakfast today—amazing).

So for now, picking lemons, limes, grapefruit and avocados from my own trees are only a dream. But peaches, plums and figs are a delicious, though completely different, substitute.