by Katharyn Privett-Duren
It has never escaped my attention that, as a holistic/organic/sustainable farmer, I need to work with as many native plants as possible. These do better in my climate (Zone 8b) and are better for the earth here, all around.
All of this is fine and well—except for my deep love for ginger, turmeric, and lime. It seems that I draw the proverbial line at giving up Indian food . . . yet, as a gardener who is deeply invested in sustainability, I worry about what would happen if I could not whip through my local grocery and pick these things up. The answer is an easy one for me: grow the next best thing. This, I’m afraid, is out of step with local farming culture.
While full-size citrus trees do not handle a hard winter (which we occasionally will see), there are ways that I have maneuvered around that tenderness and tended these things I love for almost seven years here in the Deep South.
We have a dedicated turmeric bed that is thickly blanketed by old hay each fall, which is just enough to keep the viability of the roots. But also, we have a little winter house made of old windows. Inside, there are raised beds that house ginger perfectly, bracketed by lime trees (in ground) that are never allowed to get to full height. If the temperature dips below freezing, our radiator heater makes up the difference and keeps us in ginger and citrus leaves all year. Oh yes, citrus leaves.
I’ve fielded questions on the nature of my lime, blood orange, and lemon trees in the past: if they cannot get to full size and enjoy the company of bees, will they set fruit? Highly unlikely. Then why have them?
And that’s my favorite question: you see, all citrus leaves are edible. Their flavor is perfectly in line with the nature of their fruit, as well. Dried or fresh, these leaves are fantastic in teas, curries, cookies, and alongside fish or chicken. Many cooks cannot get their hands on these, yet they are just a few yards from my front door. I’ve heard that they will, in fact, grow in large enough pots for folks up north—but that’s an experiment I’ll never be able to confirm. I can confirm that a lime leaf, simmering up against Cuban pork butt with a little spiced rum, can make my old heart sing.
Here is a short list of fantastic uses of lime leaves (although lime zest can substitute):
Canning tomatoes (perfect for salsa!)
Crumbled into rub for grilled or roasted meats
Ground for butter cookies (butter + citrus = heaven)
Simmered as a tea with honey
Steeped for a homemade household/organic cleaner
Mulled in a pitcher of homemade sangria
Sounds delicious, yes?
And so, while I’m roughly six hours north of my citrus-growing neighbors, I am victorious when I can sip the nectar of lime tea on my porch in central Alabama.
Gardening calls for a little rebellion from time to time. In fact, it is one of the most rebellious acts I have ever committed. As a GenXer, I find deep irony in the fact that I am replicating my grandmother’s life: growing my own mustard seeds, making my own wine, whipping together tinctures and decoctions and saving seeds as if I am in the Great Depression.
Divorced from the need of such skills as a child, I never truly understood the joy that some of this “work” could instill in a heart. I had heard stories from my mother (a woman deeply tormented by her country upbringing) of the labor, the heat, the pain of worn feet—after all, as she had said to me one afternoon on the phone, why work that hard when the grocery was right down the street?
We had just bought our micro farm, and I had lamented at the bushels of pears that were about to fall upon our manicured lawn. Shouldn’t I do something with them? The renegade in me balked at the notion of letting them all just rot, all while jollily trotting to the local grocery for fruit. That something, deep inside of my ancestral memory, did guide me to the store . . . for jars, and lids, and sugar. And yes. It was work. I have pickled, candied, dehydrated, and frozen until my hands ached. I have sweat rivers, thrown out my back, and pleaded for rain. That kind of rebellion is not for the weak of heart, and it’s certainly not assuaged by prepackaged food.
But ask me, deep in the winter when I crack open a jar of liquid peach sunshine, was it worth it? Yes, yes, oh yes.
I have learned more about the depth of nature, and more about the tenacity of my own work ethic, than I would have every learned trotting to the store. To forget how to grow is to forget my grandma, who told me once that she would not eat a canned peach when a tree was just down the road. Gardening was never a backup plan for her. Rather, the store was the emergency trip she hoped she never had to make.
Here in these troubling times, I stand in my garden in bare feet and think of her—weathering the Great Depression with a peach in her hand—and realize that her rebellion was to feed herself. I suppose my lime tree is pushing the boundaries of need, but it sure tastes like teen spirit.
Lime Basil Shortbread Cookies
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, sliced and chilled (although I break this rule and use salted sometimes)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried and crumbled lime leaves (or lime zest)
1 teaspoon fragrant dried basil
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Using a food processor, mix the flour, butter, sugar and salt for 15 seconds or so—just want to incorporate here. Add lime leaves/zest and basil and pulse only for a second or two. Turn out the mixture onto a work surface and form into a smooth, compact ball. Be careful to not overheat by kneading too much.
On a floured surface, roll the dough out and cut into your favorite shape. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet with a bit of space between. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Bake for roughly 25-30 minutes—remembering that these only need to be lightly browned on edges. Sometimes, our ovens are rebellious too.
*Photo credit: Tolga Ahmetler, Unsplash