February activates plants and those who tend them

Calamondin orange endures chilly nighttime temperatures and is covered with flowers. — Photo by Susan Safford

The holiday crush, and the daze the Newtown killings caused, made me overlook the passing of Russell Libby (1956-2012), an agricultural economist and visionary director of the Maine Organic Farmers’ and Gardeners’ Association. Under his 17 years’ leadership, MOFGA has grown its legendary Common Ground Fair and become the nation’s largest state-level organic association. During that time, two Maine trends the Vineyard will do well to emulate have arisen, in contrast to the national picture: Maine’s acreage in agricultural production is rising, and the average age of its farmers is declining!

Snowdrop and crocus emerge here, to what fate? The weather patterns are becoming more inscrutable and difficult to predict. We were cavorting on green lawns dotted with yellow dandelions, as the British usually do in winter months, while Britain was swathed in snow and bitter conditions.

Then — zap! — down to 8ºF and four inches of snow on the Vineyard, segueing into balmy 50ºF days where it was possible to spray fruit trees and shrubs with horticultural oil and enjoy the scent of blooming witch hazel on the air.

Winter renews my appreciation for life here, the natural and social networks. For many urban and suburban dwellers, there is a scarcity of nature and wildlife, and champagne-lifestyles can be deprived in basic ways. Modest island circumstances might seem privileged elsewhere.

Most of us have real and direct interactions with each other and the natural world, whether it is merely feeding “our” birds (those that visit and share our yards or decks), observing the rafts of sea ducks out in the Sound, or having a deer or sharp shin hawk just narrowly missing the front fender.

The human control of nature — John McPhee’s term, and the title of a fascinating collection of his essays — is waged like a debauched land war. How many of the troops in this war deduce that we too are part of this planet, and must be able to continue living on it? Islanders are able to enjoy a much more intimate connection with nature than most, and we are appreciative.

We are lucky to live in the place and community that we have here, with personal connections, experience of nature, and good odds to carry out a vision like Russ Libby’s.

Potted citrus and amaryllis

Many forms of citrus do well and fruit as potted plants, the ponderosa and Meyer lemons being well-known examples. The 45-year-old calamondin orange in my greenhouse enjoyed its summer vacation outside. Before bringing it indoors I pruned and shaped it.

Now it has made excellent growth in the intervening nine or ten weeks. Over four feet tall in its large pot, the plant is covered with fragrant, white flowers and infant fruit. When ripened these are orange and walnut-sized, and may be eaten like kumquat, juiced substituting for lemon or lime, or made into marmalade.

The calamondin is thought to be a naturally occurring inter-generic hybrid, which explains the style of the binomial, x Citrofortunella microcarpa. It is native to the Philippines, where it is called calamansi in Tagalog.

Historically, wealthy personages such as George Washington had specially built houses, called orangeries and limonaias, for wintering over citrus — indispensable culinary ingredients, prized almost immediately upon their discovery. Today, Longwood Gardens has a beautiful collection of citrus, some of which date from the time of Pierre S. duPont himself. Logee’s Greenhouses (www.logees.com) offers a wide array of about two dozen different citrus species.

Admittedly, the greenhouse hosts more whitefly than I’d like, but I wonder if they are not actually the agents of pollination? My plant is quite healthy. In addition to whitefly, potted citrus are subject to cottony cushion scale and several other scale insects.

Acceptable indoor pest control includes insecticidal soaps and plant washes such as neem and horticultural oil. I feed the calamondin with chelated liquid iron from time to time and mix Osmocote into the gritty potting soil. It does not mind the nighttime chill of the closed-off greenhouse.

Orange blossoms are not the only joys that indoor plants bring. What is more fun than watching the daily progress upward of the giant, bulgy buds of amaryllis? Having grown many different cultivars over the years, I had better than half a dozen large pots crammed with bulbs and their offsets. They became a repotting project in December.

Hybrid amaryllis, botanically Hippeastrum, come in two categories, the Dutch and African hybrids. If you received a holiday bulb, it has probably already commenced to bloom, because it was prepared to do so. Hereafter, its annual bloom is likely to occur a little later into winter, or even early spring. (Those sold at the holidays are often African hybrids: they flower in a shorter period of time than the Dutch hybrids.)

Dividing was effortful but yielded pot after pot of assorted-sizes of bulbs. Many of the larger ones became Christmas presents; I hope they are complete with flower buds, but if not this year, then next.

The root mass is often twice as deep as the bulb. The challenge: to commit this repotting butchery without destroying too many of the bulb’s fleshy roots. To replant and fit bulb safely into the classically snug pot, with about an inch to spare around the bulb and about one-third exposed above the soil line, use long tom or geranium pots.

In the garden

The sap is already rising. February is last call to prune orchard fruit trees (except cherries), grapevines, autumn-bearing raspberries, and blueberries. Carry out corrective pruning in shrubs and trees, cutting branches for forcing. Rake out accumulations of windblown leaves. Take soil samples for testing.

MVAS Meat Ball

Mark your calendars for the Agricultural Society’s sausage fest, the Meat Ball with The Day Trippers, Saturday, February 23, at Agricultural Hall, including sausage making workshop and sausage dinner.