Sunday, February 28, 2021

Growing citrus in pots

Better Homes and Gardens March 2021

I gathered as many of my citrus-growing tips as possible for an article about growing indoor citrus, featured in the March edition of Better Homes and Gardens. The paper edition, hard copy only. I know! A real magazine. 

Magazine article about citrus trees

Here I am, reading the piece to the Thai limes. They had questions. 

These tips are hard-won, from personal experience (with some expert support along the way) and were written to answer - in one place - some of the frequent questions I am asked about growing citrus trees in pots. My trees have taught me a lot. I have also made mistakes, and learned how to recover from them (sorry about that over-watering, Ms. Meyer!).

Meyer lemon flowering indoors by Marie Viljoen

In our bedroom right now it is citrus blossom season. Well, at least for the deliciously scented Meyer lemon. Sometimes the Thai limes are slower and only erupt once they are out on the terrace again, and that won't be for another six-ish weeks. 

Meyer lemon by Marie Viljoen

The yuzu is still too young to bloom, and the fingerlime has a mind of its own, sometimes flowering hardest in the middle of the year! 

Fingerlime by Marie Viljoen

If you are in the US and looking for citrus trees to buy, my fingerlime and yuzu trees came from Four Winds Growers, while the Meyer lemon and Thai limes came from LemonCitrusTree

In my native South Africa, locals can contact the Stellenbosch Botanical Garden to see if they have Thai limes (Citrus hystrix) in stock (thanks to my friend Donovan Kirkwood, who is the garden's curator). And yes, they would have to be picked up in person. 

Our own citrus flock is a delight, but these are not low maintenance plants. Think of them as green pets, and you'll get along just fine.


My Books

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Flowers in the house

February windowsill

February may be the shortest month, but in a winter hemisphere it can seem like the longest. The antidote also belongs to February, at least in this city. Spring flowers appear at corner markets, at delis, and at bodegas. And so while it is freezing out, we can bring spring indoors.

Scented flowers in vase

Outside a local supermarket (how local is local, in neighorhood terms - does a one-way, one-mile walk, count?), Key Food on 7th Avenue, the flower sellers have unusually interesting selections, and so I pounced on these tuberoses, for their scent.

Tulips in a vase

But I love tulips, and they last a long time (if one buys them in very tight bud, with as little color showing as possible): typically 10 days. I change their water a couple of times, and if their leaf tips begin to darken, as they do, I strip the leaves, cut the stems and return them to a smaller vase for another few days. 

New York's snow is beginning to melt, with rain washing it away and temperatures rising. Soon, it will be time to assess the terrace. The windowboxes may need some surgery (they are lined with landscape fabric, burlap, and moss - and it's the burlap that has fared the worst), and some terra cotta might have cracked. 

It is no longer dark at four o'clock. And in March the "spring forward" time change (the 14th) and vernal equinox (the 20th) await. One day we will be able to sip our evening drinks on the terrace, again. Until then, the windowsill is where you will find our flowers.


#thewindsorsill on Instagram

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Dear Mr. Springsteen - thank you for the snow buntings

snow buntings

Dear Mr. Springsteen,

Thanks to you, the Frenchman (that's my husband) and I saw snow buntings for the first time last Sunday. At Sandy Hook, in New Jersey. They were minding their own business, just like you, when you were booked on a bogus DWI charge that made headlines three months after the event. 

(Snow buntings are a bird, by the way. Winter migrants in these parts.) 

Sandy Hook snow by Marie Viljoen

Also, we saw Sandy Hook itself for the first time, minus the hordes of summer. It was covered in snow, from shoreline to shoreline. It was surprising, and stunning.

Until spotting a recent breaking-news headline of your arrest last year, I had not realized that Sandy Hook was a very striking park, or part of the National Gateway Recreational Area within easy driving-reach of the city. So I Google-mapped it. Just over an hour! We packed hot soup and a hot toddy and headed out from Brooklyn.

Sandy Hook snow

The articles about what seems like a nothing-event have riveted me. I don't read tabloids, and I avoid celebrity gossip. But there this was, in the upstanding New York Times. Whose reported version of the events keeps changing. The original articles are nowhere to be found online, thanks to the "Updated" loophole in digital media that erases former iterations. 

Those first - now missing or very padded - articles omitted a pertinent fact, and simply reported a report: the now super-repeated observations by one fastidious ranger, Officer Hayes. Which made you sound dead drunk. Not one initial article mentioned your blood alcohol level: one quarter of the legal limit. You had several shots to go.

Since this was such a minor event made major only by your celebrity status, I was very curious about who leaked it, and why. It was a shitty thing to do. But mostly it was a sense of bafflement: Why are they writing about it?

One of the first versions, in the breaking news column (seriously, this is breaking news? Oh, hi, clickbait) mentioned only, in That Ranger's words, that you were "visibly swaying" and smelled of alcohol. Later one said that you said (in exactly that disbelieving tone) that a fan had given you a bottle of Tequila. Where, it asked indignantly, was the evidence of this and why had no fan posted this on social media? 

Frozen grass by Marie Viljoen

A self-righteous op ed in the Chicago Tribune by JD Mullane wagged its finger at you, you naughty old man and concluded, "At 71, it’s foolish. Tipsy, alone, riding a motorcycle. Ranger Hayes may have saved an American legend... Or maybe it was a call for help, that Bruce is suffering on a level far deeper than we’d expect."

Really? What should you be doing at 71? Knitting in a group circle? Checking into senior living? Looking dapper (a patronizing word reserved purely for the respectably-dressed and old) on your way to church? Whatever you do, don't get on your motorbike and have fun.

Clearly you are begging for help. And Ranger Hayes should go on dog doo-doo duty for a month. Or six. Take JD Mullane with you.

And sad? A famous guy getting on his Triumph (very classy bike, by the way) and heading out alone, minus entourage, minders, or social media circus, to visit a favorite wild spot isn't sad. It's refreshing. And he has a shot, maybe two (like you said), of Tequila after a fan spots him and waves a bottle. That was a gracious thing to do. Fans can be a pain in the butt. 

Let's talk evidence. Why did it take several news cycles for that pertinent fact, your blood alcohol level, to be reported? 0.02%. The legal limit is 0.08%. Sorry, shouting. And why wasn't that the first fact to be quoted in any subsequent story? I know, because that would have un-story-ed it.

Blue crab claw

I'm not sure why I am this disgusted. Maybe it's the feeding frenzy. There is so much real hurt cascading down on us. But the relentless pursuit of meaningless clicks continues. The minute attention span to which we have agreed to become hostage drives everything information-related. The business model that makes it necessary for reputable news sources to bow down to their advertisers - who need eyeballs on ads - at the cost of proper reporting. The pressure that serious media are under to simply stay alive. I have no doubt that this blip boosted sales.

New York Times breaking news

And today, in the breaking news column, bottom right, just where the first non-event broke over ten days ago, is the headline: Bruce Springsteen Drunk Driving Charges Dismissed. 

No kidding. Never saw that coming.

You can read the updated version of the updated update, here.


I'm going on a media diet.

But thank you for going to Sandy Hook. It's beautiful. The water, the view of Manhattan on the horizon, the dunes for days, and the tallest holly trees I have ever seen, growing in the sand. 

Snow bunting by Marie Viljoen

And for the snow buntings, visiting from the Arctic highlands.


Forage On

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Tropical winter

Tropical fruit basket

I've been traveling. In the last couple of snowy months, I have visited the tropics. Twice. To get there, I traverse Siberia. Sort of.

At the end of a two mile hike straight across Prospect Park, I reach Grenada. On my way there my basket is empty. Heading back, boots squeaking in the freeze underfoot, it is brimming with fruit from the Caribbean. I need huskies.

Canistel fruit

It began in December, with a thoughtful gift of grenadillas and an unfamiliar canistel (Pouteria campechiana - above) from my friend Hannah Goldberg. She bought them at Labay Market, a West Indian grocery store in Brooklyn's Prospect-Lefferts neighborhood, on the east side of Prospect Park. Hannah is a regular, often in search of good things for her catering company Tanabel Table.

So I had to go. After a quick look at Google Maps walking made the most sense, because snowdrift parking is not much fun in this city. And a four mile hike is decent exercise (cardio-with-a-reward).

Snow in the park

I went this way.

Snow in the woods

And down there.

Roselle or hibiscus

And landed up here.

The corner store is lined with bins that spill produce flown in from the Dominican Republic and Grenada. And so I met sour, fresh roselle for the first time. It has numerous common names and may be best known simply as hibiscus; it is not the flower, but the calyx of a hibiscus species that actually resembles okra, in terms of its blooms. Its botanical name doesn't mess about: Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa race ruber. I made a fermented syrup from them and they candied as they fermented. 

Green coconuts

Not plantains, or bananas. But you can have as many green coconuts as you like chopped open for you on the sidewalk.

The owner, McDonald Romain (who goes by Big Mac) presides inside behind a slipping facemask and a clear-ish MacGyvered COVID screen between his cash register and his customers. He takes his time to chat with each person as they pay, over the thumping sounds of loud Christian music (his Facebook page explains that he is "covered in the blood from head to toe"). And he grills me about what I plan to do with his produce, giving instruction, when necessary.

Once you squeeze past the counter (it's not a large store, and I am double-masked indoors, these days) you reach a jumbled motherlode of seasonally changing fruits and vegetables that are rare-to-non-existent in supermarkets: squat bananas, unripe, fat plantain, grenadillas, mamey apple, breadfruit, soursop, real Key limes, sour and sweet fresh tamarind, and, most recently, black sapote. In an open refrigerator are bags of frozen, peeled sugar cane, and elegant bundles of fresh taro leaves. Shelves are lined with West Indian delicacies and staples like canned callaloo, sacks of brown sugar, bags of mace. On ice at the back is a collection of whole, fresh fish. There is a kitchen too, but I have not seen it in action.

Tropical fruit

And so I come home with loot. It is urban foraging at its happiest.

platter of tropical fruit

The black sapote (a.k.a. chocolate pudding fruit) is the large green, round one, above. Amazingly, to me, it is closely related to persimmons: It is Diosypros nigra; Asian persimmons are Diospyros kaki, and the little native American persimmons are D. virginiana

Big Mac suggested I would soon be back for the chocolate pudding fruit, but its thick creaminess and bland sweetness didn't thrill me. Possibly it was picked too early, someone suggested (when I posted it to Instagram) - it has many passionate supporters.

Kitchen scene in winter

But I will be back for the taro. I prepared the large leaves first in a Jamaican curry, and then in a non-traditional Hawaiian lau lau - packages of pork belly wrapped in the leaves and steamed slowly (taro must be cooked for a long time to destroy the calcium oxalate crystals that otherwise irritate your tongue and mouth; this is not a green to blanch and eat vividly green). 

The leaves have a delicious and distinctive flavor, and a silky, melting texture, once cooked. My lau lau also featured fresh ginger, because Labay's is the nicest I have ever eaten, it cooks till tender and chewable, as well as good Japanese soy (Ohsawa nama shoyu, from Gold Mine Natural Food Company). 

Spring will come. But this is not a bad way to spend winter.


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Saturday, February 20, 2021

Winter, with wings

          Photos: Vincent Mounier

I give you: gratuitous bird-feeding pictures. A February pleasure, apparently. It has been over a decade since I fed North American birds from my hands. And that was in Stanley Park, Vancouver. (There was a weaver, in South Africa, inbetween.)

Titmice and chickadees in Brooklyn. (Why not the song sparrows, hopping at my feet? Or the bold cardinals?)

It is precious, the minute pressure of tiny bird feet on your skin.

And it feels for a while as though this is the only thing.

The pictures above were taken in Green-Wood Cemetery. The monarch butterfly mask is from Society 6. The artist who makes this one is  Eclectic at Heart and I like their other masks, too. They are all double-layered, with space for a filter-insert. But they do get loose after a lot of wearing and washing. So (after six months of daily wear) I will order some more. (For grocery shopping we now wear double masks: a surgical mask under the cloth. Yay.)

Pensive chickadee. These pictures (different jacket! Maskless!) were taken up in Pelham Bay a couple of weeks ago, in the Bronx. Then, as now, we walked into the city wilds to enjoy the snow. There were very few people, so I was relieved to de-mask. (Although, an hour into our walk, post-picnic, we bumped right into our friends Stephen and Chad on a narrow, snowy path. Which seemed surreal and perfectly normal, at the same time. We re-masked to greet one another with sounds of muffled effusion.)

I want my own chickadee.

Look at the two birds. It doesn't seem real. Very fast shutter speed on that long-lensed Canon of the Frenchman's.

We saw a family of deer in these woods, sitting in the snow, and chewing whatever deer chew in snowy February. Their coats looked thick and warm. 

Mostly, there was silence. We are becoming connoisseurs of where to find it.

Tomorrow, we will look for some more.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Happy snow daze

Before it melts, I should share our snow.

The second significant snowfall in a week brought wet, fat flakes to settle softly on every twig and branch in Brooklyn. The first snowstorm had been just that: a blizzard blowing sideways, piling in angry, wind-packed drifts. This one was different. And it had that earlier foundation to build on. 

We walked into it through our neighborhood streets and stood like tourists, serially and then permanently amazed. Behind our masks our mouths were often open.

The lake in Prospect Park was iced over and snowed on into a sense of endlessness.

The Boathouse (from which no one ever boats).

And snow people proliferated. This one, with beech leaf eyes, was my favorite.

The trees were breathtaking, and the forest paths other-worldly.

From the silence we emerged into the circus. There was not an unhappy person, anywhere.

We do.

The sky began clearing gently halfway through our nearly three-hour walk, and then lifted in time for the sun to improve on what already seemed perfect.

I wish Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert B. Vaux could have seen their park on this day, in this unimaginable age. 

One of the walks of our lifetime.


Monday, February 1, 2021

Yuzu kitchen


While the snow falls and the wind screeches cinematically around corners, we wait. In the kitchen yuzu (Citrus junos) skins are soaking in a jar of gin, slices of yuzu are macerating with sugar to make a fragrant syrup (it's destined for stirring into hot black tea, and maybe a few other things, too), and a little basket of candied yuzu pith - a gift from my friend Kiyoko - keep the last of the yellow tulips company. 

It is citrus season.

The guavas on the kitchen island must be cooked (with juniper, and yes, yuzu peel). And the pine cones are a long story.

The candied yuzu is addictively good, and I don't really have a sweet tooth. It's just the pith - that spongy layer between zest and pulp, which in this species is highly fragrant. This pretty little basket represents a lot of work.


Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine