The Quest For Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)

What I love most about gardening is eating what I grow.  Especially when I get to eat something that can’t be bought.  Case in point, the dragon fruit.  Have you ever seen or tasted a dragon fruit (a.k.a. pitaya/pitahaya)?  The bright pink fruits are shaped like small footballs and adorned with lime green “fins”.   The variety occasionally available (for $5 a piece!) in specialty groceries is called Vietnamese Jaina.  Though it’s generally regarded as the dragon fruit with the least interesting flavor, it is as refreshing as it is beautiful.  Imagine how good the best flavored varieties must taste!  I did imagine this, and then I ordered some vine cuttings.

A pitaya cutting planted in soil

Dragon fruits come in at least four main types.  White flesh with pink skin, white flesh with yellow skin, red flesh with pink skin, and purple flesh with pink skin.  You can grow some varieties from seeds, root any variety from cuttings of a living vine, or purchase plants.  Though sometime I would like to try growing pitaya from seeds, this time I opted to try rooting cuttings from named varieties.  Cuttings are surprisingly affordable, and I ordered 3 for $10 from ebay.  One white flesh type called Guyute, one red flesh type called American Beauty, and one purple flesh type called Purple Haze.  Information about many named varieties of dragon fruit can be found here: Pine Island Nursery

A dragon fruit (pitaya) cutting, unrooted
This is essentially what the cuttings looked like when they arrived. The arrow points to the top of the vine, as it was on the mother plant. Put the opposite end in the soil.

I ordered my vine cuttings in early April, set their bottom ends (there is a top and bottom, and the vine should be marked when you receive it) into individual pots of organic soil in my kitchen window under some grow lights.  I watered once every three days per the instructions, and I waited, and waited.  Once a week I pulled each cutting out of the soil to check for roots, and each week, nothing.  Eventually, my Purple Haze cutting started to rot.  It became infested with some tiny white worms, and turned mushy beneath the soil line.  Not willing to give up on the variety I was most excited to taste (it’s described as having a grape-kiwi flavor), I cut off the affected part of the vine and left the rest of it it to dry on my kitchen counter for about a week.  After a good callous formed along the cut edge, similar to what I had seen on the vine cuttings when they first arrived, I replanted it and hoped for the best.

A purple haze dragon fruit cutting planted in soil
The ‘Purple Haze’ dragon fruit cutting is much shorter than the others, because I had to remove the rotten part and start over. It still rooted, though!

In mid-may, the weather finally warmed enough to move the vines outside.  None of my pitaya cuttings had rooted yet, but I was determined not to give up on them.  Finally, after a few weeks in the sun, the Guyute vine sprouted roots!  I suspect the hot weather encoraged it to grow.  This week, the Purple Haze cutting sprouted roots too, and Guyute has already begun producing new top growth!  I can almost taste the juicy unknown flavors.  If all goes according to plan, I expect to harvest my first home-grown dragon fruits within 1-2 years.  Of course, this tropical cactus will have to be grown in a pot and moved indoors for winter.  Supposedly they like these conditions, and even thrive in a root-bound situation.  More dragon fruit updates to follow!

Dragon fruit cutting beginning to sprout new green growth
Guyute Dragon Fruit sprouting a new vine

Operation: Planter Rescue

Many things in life are temporary by nature.  Fresh food spoils, newspapers become irrelevant, and cardboard boxes weaken with use.  For these things, we do our best to take only what we need, and to recycle them into the best possible second life.  But other things were meant to last.  What do we do when one of those things breaks?  Too often, they’re thrown out with the trash or the recycling waste.  New things replace them, packaged in plastic and shipped from overseas.  But what of our old things?  Could they be repaired or re-purposed?  Could they be given a second chance to fulfill their potential?  Many times they can be, and it’s easier than you might think!

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Sauerkraut with Cumin & Coriander

Comparisson shot of cabbage and sauerkraut color variation
(Left) A jar of finished sauerkraut. (Right) Fresh cabbage, just beginning to ferment

I first tried wild, unpasteurized sauerkraut at a farmers market in the Castro district of San Francisco.  A local artisan offered me a free sample, and  I was pretty sure I was going to hate it.  Almost completely convinced it would be terrible.  But I’m not one to turn down a new taste experience, so I agreed.  “I’m not so sure I’m going to like it,” I told the nice man holding the jar of kraut.  “That’s the best reason to try something new!” he said.  I was completely surprised by what I tasted.  It was tart, bright, crunchy, and scented with seeds of cumin and coriander.  It really didn’t taste anything like cabbage, or what you might think sour cabbage would taste like.  I bought the biggest jar they had, and devoured it in under a week.
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Violette de Bordeaux Fig Tree

Figs are like a fruit holiday.  They have two short seasons each year.  Figs are a little sensitive to cold weather, and therefore not very available in many parts of the world.  Including my part of the world, much to my dismay.  So what’s a fig lover to do?  Grow them, of course!

Fig Leaves Close Up
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DIY Recycled Plant Labels

Growing plants from seed is such a hopeful, optimistic thing.  Every year, when I see my first pair of cotyledons, I envision their potential so intensely that I can almost taste the summer’s garden.  Of course, those baby seedlings have a long journey ahead before harvest day comes.  They will battle weather, insects, disease, and hungry herbivores.  If they win all of those battles, only then will I taste the sun-warmed, juicy potential I see in my day-old seedlings.

DIY Plant labels / markers made from recycled soda cans

My first year of gardening, I tried to make plant labels out of popsicle sticks.  At first, it worked well.  But as the weeks went by, water caused the wood to swell and the ink smeared beyond recognition.  I ended up with about a hundred unmarked plants!  I could of course discern the peppers from the broccoli, but I never did sort out all the varieties of tomatoes I had planted.  The next year I purchased plastic plant markers.  They were expensive, but I thought at least I would be able to reuse them.  However, the summer sun baked the plastic until it became weak and brittle, and their broken pieces will probably haunt the local landfill for centuries to come.  Finally I came across this technique of cutting labels out of empty soda cans.  The writing is etched into the metal, so it’s completely permanent.  They are reusable, they can be cleaned in a dishwasher, and ultimately recycled when the garden has no more use for them.  I cut fancy shapes, engraved with decorative designs for my perennials.  When I’m starting dozens (or hundreds) of seeds, I love to make simple rectangular labels.  The creative and useful possibilities are endless!  Best of all this project is:  FREE!  ECO-FRIENDLY! CRAFTY! and PRACTICAL!  A set of beautifully embellished aluminum plant markers could even make a great gift idea for gardeners.
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DIY Plant Stand: How to build a convertible plant stand, potting bench, or boot bench

When I moved into a newly rented house, I had six subtropical trees to fit in my kitchen.  I wanted a storage solution that fit into the space I had, elevated my plants to window height, and had a top bar from which to mount grow lights.  I came up with a sketch for a 2′ x 2′ x 4′ bench with one tall side.  It was easy to build, cost less than a bookcase from Ikea, and looks beautiful in my kitchen.  In the future if I no longer need a potting bench, I can easily convert this to a boot bench with a coat rack by simply installing a few hooks on the top bar and adding some decorative boards to the base.
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The Long Journey

Screen shot 2014-02-13 at 9.31.49 AM

Last week, my husband and I embarked on our second cross-country move. Despite freezing weather, three snow storms, and one curious police officer, we safely crossed eight of our united states from San Francisco to Indianapolis.  We arrived at our new home with our three cats, six trees, and live sourdough culture.  As we unwrap each of our belongings, we try once again to adapt to a new home, a new climate, and a new neighborhood.

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Welcome Home, Owari Satsuma and Santa Teresa Feminello Lemon Trees!

One year old Owari Satsuma Tree (Left) next to One Year Old Santa Teresa Feminello Lemon Tree (Right)At the end of this month, I’ll be moving back to my hometown of Indianapolis, IN.  As I prepare to say my goodbyes and restart my life one more time, I have been thinking about how to carry with me some of my favorite California experiences.  I have thought about joining or starting a new drum circle there, driving to neighboring states in search of dark skies to photograph, and of course growing some of the fruits that make farmers markets around here so special.  To that end, I adopted two new fruit trees into my patio garden family today.  I had never seen a Satsuma mandarin orange until I moved to California.  Last year I drove to a farm in Brentwood and bought a whole case of fresh Satsumas  to share with family and friends over the holidays.  This year I bought a tree, so hopefully I can continue to enjoy them for many Decembers to come.
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Bearss Seedless Lime Tree

Meyer Lemon Tree and Bearss Seedless Lime Tree
1 Year Old Meyer Lemon Tree (left) and 1 Year Old Bearss Seedless Lime Tree (right)

There are several types of limes, all of which I want to grow.  There are tiny Mexican Key limes, wrinkly Kieffer limes, sweet limes, and edible peel limequats.  Since I only have room for one lime tree, I chose the one I use most often:  Bearss Seedless Lime.  Bearss Seedless is a Persian type lime, the one commonly found in grocery stores.  It is large, juicy, and fabulous in all kinds of drinks and desserts.  A home-grown lime has the same look and flavor as a commercial lime, but I find that my limes are much juicier.

This lime tree has, so far, been the easiest plant I have ever grown.  I water it about once per week in mild temperatures, and I fertilized it twice with a handful of GrowMore Vegetarian 5-2-2 organic fertilizer.  The tree is thriving, and has already produced several ripe limes!
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Improved Meyer Lemon Tree

Meyer Lemon TreeAs an avid gardener and cook, I like to learn as much as I can about fruit and vegetable varietals.  When I encounter an interesting fruit, I want to learn its name so I can find it again and grow it myself.  But even if you’re not someone who looks through huge beautiful piles of heirloom tomatoes hoping to find one very special Black Krim, you will notice a flavor difference between a Meyer lemon and a standard lemon.  Meyer lemons are smaller, less sour, less acidic, and darker in color than the more classically available Eureka lemon.  The peel is thin and edible, with a very aromatic zest.  Unfortunately their delicate nature makes them difficult to ship, so unless you live in a warm citrus-growing place, they may be a rare find in your local market2.  However, Meyer lemon trees grow well in containers, so you can grow one even if you live in a colder agricultural zone.
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