It was a sight to sooth my winter soul: lemon trees in bloom and laden with fruit. No, I was not on vacation in the tropical south. I was in Saskatchewan on a cold and snowy day, surrounded by lemon trees painstakingly bred to grow indoors even during the short days of a prairie winter.
These lemons are the conception and passion of master gardener M.P.M Nair, a retired engineer who grows lemons on his acreage south of Saskatoon. After thirty years of breeding and growing lemons, he has almost achieved his goal: an indoor bush-type lemon that blooms four times per year and produces fruit in the low-light conditions of a northern winter.
“Someday soon, when I’m fully satisfied, some of these lemons will be made available to the general public,” he told me, picking a plump lemon and plunking it into my hand.
Nair says he began his lemon project almost on a dare: “A friend told me I couldn’t grow lemons in low light. I’m a stubborn man and when somebody says you can’t do something I have to do it.”
He remembered his mother’s abundant garden in India where lemons grew in the shade. He brought a couple of cuttings back to Saskatoon and cross-bred them with some lemon and lime plants from the United States. He grew the fruit and planted the seeds, then selected the offspring based on his desired characteristics. The result is several different varieties of lemons—small and large, with and without seeds, thick or thin skin and varying degrees of tartness—that grow in pots and bloom at least four times per year.
What a boon! During my year of eating locally, when my husband and I tried to eat only foods produced in Saskatchewan, I had to make an exception for lemons, the one exotic fruit I could not do without. Lemons are essential for a lovely salad dressing and a key ingredient in the cuisines of Greece, Morocco and the Middle East, which lend themselves so well to foods produced in Saskatchewan. I can’t imagine my refrigerator without lemons.
Nair is not the only one successfully growing lemons in the Saskatoon area. Susan Chalmers, who grows and markets vegetables from her acreage in Furdale, has a Meyer lemon growing in a sunny window. “I’ve had it for two years now,” says Susan. “When I got it, it was seriously infested with whitefly—all the leaves fell off. It then went on to give me three lemons about ten months later.”
She made lemon chicken, lemonade and Greek lemon salad dressing, and even threw the rinds into the dishwater to give a sparkle to glassware. “The smell of the blossoms on a cold snowy day are reason enough to have one!” she says.
Nair is convinced that, in the future, we’ll all be growing more food inside our homes, both to augment local food supplies and to clean polluted air: plants use harmful carbon dioxide gas in the production of chlorophyll and emit healthy oxygen. He predicts that homes will be constructed with sunny solariums and other adaptations that support indoor gardening. “We have to relook the way that we live,” he says. “We have no choice, it’s a must.”
Nair gave me four lemons. I squeezed some into my tea and made lemon biscuits, Greek lemon soup and a salad dressing. Then I preserved some of the rind in salt for use in Moroccan dishes.
Which ensures that I’ll be eating my Saskatchewan lemons for several months to come!