Getting His Whiff On

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Ah!  The smell of spring in the air.  When you ecstatically throw open the window to the light and enjoy the first warm breezes marking the change of seasons.

The sun is shining, the snow is reduced to patches dotting the landscape, the first tiny snowdrop flowers appear in the garden bed and – hard as it tries – winter cannot hold sway over the days to come.

Just a month ago I would take Sylvester out and hold his leash in one hand, balance the recycling bin on top of the garbage can with the other (as I dragged it all to the curb) and tuck the days mail under my chin.  All in an effort to do everything in one trip.

Sub-zero weather calls for creative maneuvering.

But today it’s going to be 65 degrees, so I hook up the mutt and we take countless jaunts up and down the street.  In fact, I purposely find reasons to pop outside.  I’m behind on the housework – but Sylvester and I have to get the mail first.  I seriously need to do my filing so I can complete my taxes – which I will get to right after I take down that winter wreath adorning the carport.

Sylvester and I make so many trips outside that he doesn’t even find any more bushes he wants to mark.

If only the outside looked as nice as the warm sunshine feels.

Instead, I see garbage and mud.  So much soggy ground and mud that my desire to get out in those garden beds and clean up the rotting, winter-dead foliage is impossible to fulfill.  I’ll have to wait until the thawing ground is firm enough.

And the garbage, uncovered from beneath the snow!  Where does all this trash come from?  Plastic bags trapped under bare bushes, water bottles in the middle of the lawn, an unbelievable number of old newspapers… delivered by someone with equally unbelievable aim.

It’s all incredibly ugly.

I feel like I live in a dump, but the neighbor’s lawns don’t look any better and I’m not inclined to wage war with the mud, so I try to ignore the way it looks and concentrate instead on enjoying the newfound warmth.

There’s still a chill if you stay out too long, so these jaunts are fleeting, and I retreat back inside, where I leave the door open and slip up the pane of glass on the storm door, the breeze flowing in through the screen.

As the day continues to heat up, another first sign of spring comes wafting through the house.

Sylvester is thrilled.  It’s clear he thinks this is even better than when I grew kumquats (The Kumquat Thief).  He runs to the door and presses his nose against the screen, audibly sniffing in huge breaths.

Getting his whiff on.

Sylvester’s eyes are shut tight in ecstasy.  His jowls shake in excitement.  And as I run around the house, slamming the window’s shut, I remember what else is out there, soft and gooey, waiting for me to clean it up… a winter’s worth of Syl’s potty breaks, augmented by the corresponding mounds left by neighboring canines.

Ah.  The scent of spring.

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Who Is The Kumquat Thief?

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The bitter cold and weak light of an Illinois winter make growing a kumquat tree outdoors an impossibility.  Indoors, it’s not easy either.  Especially if there’s a thief in your house.

If you’ve ever tasted a kumquat, you’d know why I grew one.

I fell in love with the fruit when I traveled to Florida one year, and a relative of mine picked one off the kumquat tree he had growing in his yard.  He handed it to me and instructed “eat the whole fruit, skin and all.”

It was instant love at first bite.  Unfortunately, despite the wonderful sweet/sour taste of the fresh fruit, there’s not a lot of kumquat shipping going on.

I don’t get it.  You can buy Florida oranges, Texas grapefruit, Costa Rican pineapples, Honduran bananas, kiwis from New Zealand, and Mexican avocados.  But try and find kumquats at your local grocer.  It’s a rare day in January when you’ll find one.

So it came about that one year I bought a kumquat tree from a nursery that assured me the citrus was hardier than most and could be grown successfully indoors in my zone 5 habitat.

For three years I nursed that tree.  It wasn’t easy.

Our summer takes too long to get hot, and turns cold too quickly.  Normally flowering in spring, forming fruit in summer, and ripening in early winter… my kumquat barely had time to set flower outdoors before it was time for me to carry it back inside.

All those websites and catalogs that tell you it’s easy to grow kumquats inside in the frozen north are either 1) unintentionally ignorant, or 2) flat out lying so you’ll buy a tree from them.

Kumquats need heat for the fruit to ripen.  Try getting heat next to a sunny window when it’s 10 degrees below zero outside.  Speaking of that sunny window… kumquats need light.  Warm, bright light.  My winter light shining in a full sun window is still too weak.

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Not to be daunted, I re-arranged my office, the brightest room in my house.  I turned the whole room into a mini-greenhouse and set the kumquat as close to the window as possible, catching what little sun rays it could.

I adorned my office with artificial light.

I researched the plants native habitat and fruit production schedules and set the plant lights on a timer, designed to imitate the amount of light required for optimum fruit production.

To protect it from the cold near the window, I enclosed the whole shelving unit in plastic sheeting.  Of course, dry heat from a furnace comes nowhere near the humidity needs of tropical fruit, so I had to set up a humidifier within my tiny office as well.  And, what the heck, I added a bunch of my other house plants to the locale, which not only helped them, but also created additional humidity for my kumquat.

You couldn’t come into the room without skirting the equipment and plants.  As my office faces the street, the lights from my windows lit up the whole block.  My neighbors commented that they didn’t need to turn on their porch lights anymore.  The light leaked into their homes in the evenings.  Did it lower their electric bill?  I wonder.

I had a trick-or-treater ask why I had a bright “jungle” on the side of my house and I suspect we were the subject of many Halloween stories… at least by the parents.

I’m not even going to begin to tell you how much this all cost.

Finally, after several years of this insane behavior, I found – to my delight – that my kumquat held twelve little orange globes.  I was thrilled.  A dozen kumquats isn’t much (they are a bit larger in size than a grape).  Those twelve kumquats would’ve been just one or two snacks, actually.  But did I care?  No!  I was one happy gardener.

Patiently, I waited for the fruits to ripen.  Every few days I would check on them, smacking my lips in anticipation.

Then one day, I noticed something funny.  Something had changed.  I counted the fruits, and two of them were missing.

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“Two of my kumquats are missing,” I said to Hubby.  “Did you eat them?”  There was an accusatory tone in my voice.

Hubby denied responsibility.  I could only assume that I had counted wrong.  After that, though, I kept closer watch.  The next week passed and all seemed fine.  I began to relax again.

Then, inexplicably, another one disappeared.

I confronted Hubby.  “There are only nine kumquats on my tree,” I said.  I didn’t need to say more, my combative stance and expression said it all.

Alarm lit up his face.  He lifted his palms, facing me, signaling me to stop, and swore up and down that he had nothing to do with it.  I had no proof and it seemed out of character for him to steal my fruits, but I couldn’t see how else it had happened.  Sylvester, our dog, didn’t like going into the office because of the crowded set-up and humidifier.  Plus, he’s a dog…  kumquats (especially unripe ones) are kind of sour.  He liked to have a bite of banana whenever we did, but he was really a meat and potatoes sort of a guy.

After that, I became obsessed with counting the kumquats every day.  Every so often another one would mysteriously disappear, so I began to watch the office door like a hawk, but I never caught anyone doing the deed.

Then, one day, I caught him.

He thought I wouldn’t see him, engrossed as I was in my book.  He passed the outskirts of the hall silently, moving covertly and sticking close to the wall, hanging his head low so I wouldn’t notice him out of the corner of my eye.

He slipped into the office and disappeared from view.

I popped up from my chair and ran to the office, just in time to catch him with a kumquat on his treacherous lips.

“Wait!” I cried.  His eyes grew wide and he ran past me and took off for the other side of the house, where I found him hiding behind the bed.

I was shocked.

But as much as I loved my kumquat tree, I love my dog more.  And how could I blame him?  Kumquats are the most glorious fruit, and I suspect he knew he’d never get any offered to him.  So I forgave Sylvester his trespasses.

That night, when Hubby came home, I told him what had happened.  Of course he took Sylvester’s side, as I knew (and Sylvester knew) that he would.

Sylvester watched as I set up a barricade to the office, protecting the remaining five kumquats.  When they finally ripened, I gave Hubby two and I ate the remaining three.

Sylvester watched us eat them, longing shining from his big, brown eyes.  I almost relented and gave him one, but then I didn’t.  Hubby gave one of his to Sylvester, and the kumquat story has come to epitomize some of the craziness I sometimes go through for plants.  We talk about it with humor.

Oh, the tree?  Despite all the artificial light, summer wasn’t enough to repair the damage caused by yet another winter indoors – It died the following year.  The neighbors were thrilled – no doubt Sylvester was disappointed.