The list of crimes against Nature in my Vermont garden is getting longer. Along with espaliering an apricot tree and growing figs in a pot, I am attempting to produce a crop of Meyer lemons.
As with the apricots (three in this, the tree's first year) and figs (nine, in ditto) the lemon crop will be tiny--five, if they all make it. I have known every one of those five lemons from conception--in fact, I was responsible for the conception of one of them, because when the tree first bloomed it was too cold to take it outside and I had to pretend I was a bee and fertilize the blooms indoors with a watercolor brush.
Meyer lemons, the offspring of a lemon and a sweet orange, originated in China, where they are grown in pots as ornamentals. They are sweeter and more floral in flavor than ordinary lemons, and their yellow-orange skin is thinner. Although they had been in this country since the early 1900s, they were rediscovered at Chez Panisse in the 1970s and later popularized by Martha Stewart. Fancy chefs love them and have figured out a hundred uses for them, most of which are way too complicated for me.
Last winter I was so assiduous with my brush that a dozen flowers set fruit, and I was concerned about how the tiny tree would bear their weight. But I needn't have worried. When the little lemons got to be a quarter-inch long they all but one dropped off.
When the weather warmed I took the tree outside thinking that the sun and air would do it good, but with no thought of further fruit. It surprised me by immediately covering itself in blooms again. This time there were real bees to do the job, and most of the blooms set fruit. Again, most of them fell off, but four persevered.
Now they are tennis-ball-size, but still green. The weather is turning colder by the day, and I worry that the lemons will not ripen properly indoors, so every evening I bring the tree inside, and take it out in the morning when the sun begins to warm the patio slates. If it doesn't rain for a couple of days, I water it. If the wind picks up, I move it to a sheltered spot.
The four apple trees surrounding the patio watch all this and smirk. They have withstood ice, snow and drought. They have been chewed by Japanese beetles, buffeted by high winds and had their flowers decimated by late frosts. They have not asked for help with fertilization or insect control. Despite all this, hardy New Englanders that they are, they have produced a mountain of deep-red, crisp, sweet apples. Now, without any fuss, they are shedding their leaves and going to sleep.
I don't blame them for smirking. Why go to all this trouble for five measly lemons? Because I'm human, of course. Which means that I'm attracted by what is exotic, and delicate, and needing extra care--the tender perennial, the long-finned fish, the white cat, the tiny dog. It's not just aesthetics or, in the case of fruit, gluttony. It's the challenge of shaking my fist at Nature, showing her that I can do some things she can't.