Friday, October 5, 2012

A little discipline for the lemon tree

It was just so young and innocent
(January 2008)
When I was young, I tended to get a little over-excited. Never was this more apparent than when we bought the house and, for the first time, I found myself with my very own Eden. Back in those days plants were bought on impulse, often with little or no thought to where they'd go, what season it was, or what preparation was required. And that's the setting in which this story begins: The Tale of a Very Disturbed Lemon Tree. It's a good example of what not to do.

I bought a Eureka lemon tree in autumn 2007, soon after we moved in - it was on special for $23 at Bunnings, and for that price, it was a very lucky thing I didn't end up with a small orchard. I also picked up a pot slightly larger than the root-ball, figuring that it wouldn't be long before I'd have it in the ground and everyone would be happy. Little did I realise that it would be over three years before it would move out of that pot. Lesson one: Never buy a tree you don't already have a hole for.

Oh so close to the ground, but still in the pot
(Late 2008)
In the ground, finally (August 2010)
Come spring 2007, it was flowering. In the first one or two years of ownership, it's generally the best to remove the flowers and let the tree focus on growth. But herein lies one of my greatest weaknesses as a gardener; especially when I was younger. I was way too excited about having fruit. And not surprisingly this lack of will power would give this tree a sour start. By the end of summer 2008, the fruit was so heavy on the young wood, branches were leaning over like a fishing rod with a whale hooked. At first I began staking them up - but so much support was required that soon it more closely resembled scaffolding. Lesson Two: For god's sake, they tell you to remove the flowers for a reason.

Doesn't look espaliered, does it? (October 2012)
If that wasn't enough, shortly before I could claim any of these ill-sought-after lemons, the tree was almost totally destroyed by the local possum - after all, if the branches couldn't support the weight of a few lemons, what chance did it have in supporting the weight of the world's least intelligent marsupial? You see, as I've come to understand, the possums in our neighborhood have something of an eye for lemons, but if not the taste. They rip one off the tree, take a single bite, then discard it for the sourness. Of course, every other lemon must then be tried for a better taste. The result was snapped branches and a yard scattered with half eaten lemons.

In August 2010, the lemon finally made the ground, in a place I never would have imagined three years earlier. I planted it in a recently made garden bed against the eastern fence - which was built over the top of a water easement. The soil is relatively shallow, but that's perfect for shallow-rooted citrus. My plan was to espalier it along the fence to wisely use the space in this walk-through garden bed.

I don't know where the time has gone, but I noticed last week that two years had passed - and this sad old lemon was still sitting there against the fence waiting for some form. Weighted down with fruit again, and growing wild and barely stronger than the day I'd bought it, something had to be done to give this poor bastard the shot at life it'd never had.

I removed all the oddly-formed lemons, then went to work building a simple frame out of a variety of garden stakes I had lying around. I then gently pulled the four healthiest looking, green wood against the horizontal stakes, and tied them down (I use Velcro strips in the garden these days for tie-downs - they're easily moveable and re-usable). Every other branch that didn't conform to the shape got the chop. Spring isn't necessarily the best time to be pruning citrus, but there's no time like the present for work this far overdue.

And maybe most surprisingly, the last thing I did was remove all the spring flowers. Because for all the pain I'd caused this tree over the years, we really don't go through that many lemons. I think I'll survive without for a few seasons.

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