Over the past two weeks, as much of the United States prepares for crunching leaves and dormant plant life, the second spring has come to the Mojave. And with the arrival of this second spring, I found myself tending to my balcony garden and marveling that I should have loose soil in my hands during the first days of October. Such is life in the desert.
I’ve struggled, learning the best gardening practices for Las Vegas. Seven years ago, when I lived in Provo, Utah, I kept a lush container garden including seven varieties of mint, a thriving lemon thyme bush, rosemary, oregano, and sundry leafy greens, and I had dreams of expanding. But foreign outdoor plants and their soil are unwelcome in California, and since moving from Provo to Santa Rosa, I haven’t managed to rebuild the collection.
I’ve regretted this. My soul yearns to grow things, to nurture green life and to enjoy the fresh, delicious results.
Upon my 2018 arrival in Las Vegas, I invested in four young plants I believed stood a chance in this harsh climate: chocolate mint, thyme, sage, and rosemary. I also spontaneously decided to try my hand at growing lemon trees from seeds rescued from my citrus juicer (which I realized all along was a lengthy process with no guarantee of success).
The chocolate mint shocked me by perishing first, over the winter. I continued watering its container long into the spring, believing it would recover through its root system, but it never did. The thyme held out until mid-summer of this year, and the sage followed closely behind. Only the rosemary remains, stubbornly persisting like a gnarled desert bonsai tree.
Meanwhile, of the ten lemon seeds I started, only two have survived—unhappily limping along on my south-facing kitchen windowsill, topping out at six inches tall and neither perishing nor thriving in their little well-drained cups.
So when the scorching weather cooled and I could determine with certainty who was alive and who was dead, I regarded my woebegone garden with an eye towards the future and took stock of what I’d learned.
The lifeless, crumbling mint, thyme, and sage were dug up and thrown away. The tenacious rosemary was moved from its current pot into the ambitious mint pot (and I’ll admit, I won’t be surprised to discover a resurrected mint shoot poking through the soil, once it realizes its lackluster performance merited an unceremonious ouster: mint has a reputation to uphold, after all). The sallow lemon trees were shifted into the matching pots once inhabited by the sage and the rosemary, carefully staked, and left outside for the first time in their lives.
I’m optimistic on the rosemary’s behalf—of all the original plants, its root system was the most well-established and evenly-spread when I removed it from its pot. Beneath the soil, the rosemary was ready for a larger home. I’m confident that with the extra room it’s now enjoying, I’ll soon see some real progress above the ground.
But I’m most eager to see what becomes of the lemon trees. I’m out of my depth with them, wandering in mystery. Potting them in larger homes and placing them outside in this milder season is a kind of last-ditch venture on my part. For months, they’ve stalled out in the safety of the kitchen window. They’ve shown they won’t die there, but they also will not grow—which in many ways is worse than death. I’ve done what I can for them, putting them outside in the best conditions Vegas can offer, and now they’ll either thrive or fall.
I hope they thrive. I hope next year I’m finding them bigger pots. Growing lemon trees from seed is a several-years-long business, and I don’t truly even know if it’s lemon trees I’m growing. That’s part of the mystery.
The seeds came from a grocery-store lemon. Because most commercial citrus fruits are grown on grafted branches, the seeds within each orange, grapefruit, lemon, or lime reflect the tree’s root system rather than the fruiting branch itself. A lemon branch grafted onto a grapefruit tree will bear lemons containing grapefruit seeds—sort of. Because sometimes the resulting fruit will hybridize the two, with the new tree bearing grapefruit-sized lemons, or pinkish-orange lemons with grapefruit-infused flesh, or yellow lemons you open up to find grapefruit inside.
Or the hybrid seed may never flower or bear fruit at all. Which would be no tragedy, for me at least. A tree is a tree. A tree is a gift and a treasure.
I’ve got no way to know the original lemon’s grafted provenance, and so I’ve got to wait and see.
Whatever happens, I’m eager to see the results in three to four years. The mystery and the promise of surprise is everything I love in life—so I hope my little trees begin to thrive. I hope the pale, sickly leaves turn vibrant green and glossy, hope the roots grow wide and deep beneath the soil, hope the firm stems thicken and develop bark. I hope the fresh desert sun nourishes them and the long Mojave autumn encourages progress and strength.
Seems so strange to be making these wishes in October, but there it is. The seasons keep a strange rhythm in the Mojave, but somehow they still align with life’s broader cycles. So much in flux, so much in uncertainty—but I’ve got my little garden, and a little garden whispers quiet bits of wisdom about patience and surrender and possibility.
My future is full of mystery fruit.
Are you a gardener? Tell us about your gardening adventures and the wonders they’ve shown you in the comments!