Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Crimes Against Key Limes

When I was just a young padawon gardener without a gardening Jedi to instruct me, my wife returned home from a business trip to Florida bearing a key lime seedling as a gift for me. 

Although northern California is perfect for growing just about every kind of food crop you can imagine, the key lime is not entirely hardy here . . . but it was close enough to give it a shot. 

I suppose it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: that tiny seedling that was brought home in a  woman's purse grew into a bona fide tree in a couple years.  I know, imagine that!

My wispy Key Lime tree in the lower left corner - photo taken in October, 2005.

As I mentioned, key limes aren’t entirely cold hardy here and I wasn’t sure if I’d even like the look of it as it grew into a mature tree, so I chose not to commit ground space to it - although I know that would have probably given it a leg up when the frosts arrived.  So it went into a pot, which it outgrew soon enough, and then I moved it to a half wine barrel where it spent the remainder of its days (that, my friends, is called “foreshadowing”). 

As it turns out, key limes are pretty small and mine never got bigger than a ping pong ball.  It also turns out that, just like Poison told us about roses, every key lime has its thorn too (yeah, it does).  Key lime thorns are abundant, super sharp, and a hazard to anything knitted or made of flesh.  So for the past six years I took a live and let live (or die) approach with the tree.  I gave it some fertilizer once in a while and it got regular water from a drip irrigation system but the tree never really thrived and I never really tried.  There was just no reason to devote a lot of effort to this tree.  It was ugly, mean, and lazy.     

So I killed it. 

And then I performed an autopsy to figure out why it had died.  It turns out that the primary cause of death was repeated hatchet wounds to the lower trunk area.  Secondary causes of death included being root bound to an embarrassing degree and all the corresponding maladies such as a lack of ability to take up water and nutrients.  Like I said, I killed it. 

This mat of roots was at the very bottom of the wine barrel and had to be cut out.

A more appropriately repentant gardener may have given up on torturing citrus right then.  But I had an empty wine barrel, a lust for citrus, and a desire to prove to myself that I could grow something edible.  

By this time though I knew enough to know what I didn’t know so I consulted the web site of Four Winds Growers to help figure out something suitable for container culture in my Zone 9A garden.  I decided on a Washington Navel Orange which, the web site touted, is California’s “famous winter-ripening variety.  Sweet, seedless fruit that ripens in ten months.” 

I have taken much better care of my orange tree.  I give it small doses of 2-1-1 equivalent fertilizer every 4-6 weeks (honestly – more like when I realize it’s been a while), it gets daily water that I adjust based on how quickly the potting soil is drying out, and I even rotate the pot 45 degrees once in a while to help ensure even exposure to the sun to help balance growth.  I plan to take it out of the pot to root prune it and then repot it after the next harvest. 

Other than a few oranges splitting, which was probably caused by extreme temperature fluctuations outside of my control, 

and the fact that it’s not the prettiest tree in the world, I’ve been very happy with my tree and I’m looking forward to enjoying these babies come Christmas time.  

And when I get a hankering for a slice of key lime pie, I just go to the bakery.  All it costs me is a few bucks and a silent prayer asking for forgiveness for what I have done.


  1. I just got stuck on the back of my pinkie finger by our Key Lime tree, and earlier, I Officially Deemed this tree an asshole. Thanks for the laugh.

  2. I've been there, Buffi. If I were you, I'd consider killing it.