When Life Gives You Lemons

By Teo Spengler | April 21, 2022
Image by Olga Rodina
by Teo Spengler
April 21, 2022

When life gives you lemons, the adage goes, make lemonade. That’s exactly what I am enjoying these hot, smokey days in Northern California. Having spent ten weeks of summer in France, even an incurable optimist like me cannot count on a very large crop in San Francisco, but my irrepressible Improved Meyer Lemon just keeps churning out those bright yellow fruits.

A Choppy Growing Season

Like everyone else lucky enough to have a garden, I spent oodles and oodles of time in it during the pandemic. I weeded the walkways like they’ve never been weeded before, worked compost into my garden beds, and set up a bird feeding station. 

I pruned back the shrubs, deadheaded the spring-blooming flowers, and planted all the things that worked best for me in years past like kale, chard, beets, arugula, and snap peas. Then France opened up to Americans and on June 9th, I flew away and didn’t come back for ten weeks. I did not return to the garden of my dreams.

An Unhappy Landscape

After ten weeks of life on a mountaintop in Basque Country, I felt terrific. I returned full of more hope, enthusiasm, and inspiration than I had felt since I first heard the word “COVID.” The mix of mountain air, the birdsong, and daily hikes in rain or shine had eased my spirit.

After those same ten weeks of no water, weeding, or maintenance, the “garden of my dreams” was an utter disaster. No crops remained to harvest, and nothing was left that could be eaten. The leafy greens were wilted, the chive had disappeared, and the apple and prune trees were totally bare of fruit. Then I noticed the lemons.

Three Cheers for Meyer Lemon

Here in San Francisco, there is a chain of bargain grocery stores called Grocery Outlet. I have a list of stuff I buy there regularly and another list of stuff I wouldn’t dream of buying there. Above and beyond these grocery lists, I never leave Grocery Outlet without viewing the plant section because you can get some real bargains.

Several years ago – perhaps five – Grocery Outlet offered a tiny Improved Meyer Lemon tree for very little money. I bought one, repotted it once, repotted it again the next year, and marveled at its rapid growth. The second year it offered a few blossoms and one lemon fruit, by the third year there were many. Today, the little tree is about 4 feet (1 m.) tall and is covered with blossoms and fruit most of the year.

Just when I was wallowing in gardener guilt for having abandoned my crops and killed them all, I noticed the lemon tree. It was holding a total of 12 fruits and about that many new blossoms too. I couldn’t believe it. Like the rest of the garden, it had not enjoyed any rain over the dry summer and had not been watered either. Yet I had never seen it looking better. I carried in a few lemons, made a pitcher of delightful lemonade, and started to plan my autumn garden.  

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