The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer succumbs to technology temptation and saves treasured trees

Texas farmer succumbs to technology and saves some treasured trees

Photo of blossom on Meyer lemon tree
One lone blossom opens on Marshall Hinsley's ailing Meyer lemon tree. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of finger inserted into soil
Testing for proper soil moisture with the finger test proves inadequate at times. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of soil moisture meter
A soil moisture meter takes the guesswork out of knowing when plants need water. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of blossom on Meyer lemon tree
Photo of finger inserted into soil
Photo of soil moisture meter

I embrace innovation in almost every way. When I need a new car, I plan to buy an electric one. My entertainment is streamed over the fastest Internet connection I can get. I didn't think twice about having sight restored in my left eye last December through a doctor's use of sophisticated surgical instruments and a precise, powerful laser. I get my news, take calls, snap photos and keep my calendar all on the latest mobile device I can afford.

But for some reason, when it comes to my garden, I feel compelled to run anything I do through some sort of test of whether or not it's natural. If it was done by farmers up until about 1920, it passes. If not, then it's not natural enough, and I do without it. It's an arbitrary standard, based mostly on my ignorance, and it's holding me back.

Case in point: I bought two citrus trees for my wife for Christmas a month ago. They're potted, miniature trees that can yield a basket or two of fruit once they grow larger. We keep them in a small greenhouse where temperatures never fall below the 60s or rise above the 90s, just like they need.

 When I stuck my finger into the soil, it felt sandy and parched, so I'd water my citrus trees. But they continued to decline.

Potted citrus trees can do well even if they're kept indoors in the winter and only wheeled outside when it's warm enough for them. In a greenhouse with full sun every day, they should thrive.

I bought them from Redenta's in Dallas, and they were beautiful, robust trees — a Meyer lemon and a blood orange, on the verge of blooming. As plants go, they weren't cheap. It was important to me to keep them alive because they were a gift and because no one wants to throw $100 away on a couple of dead trees.

The first week, they kept their beauty and looked as if they'd fill the air with the fragrance of oranges and lemons when they bloomed. By the second week, however, they began to drop their leaves and their developing flowers. By the third week, the lemon tree had just about gone completely bare; the orange tree fared better but was still losing leaves.

I called Redenta's and asked for advice. Of course, the guy on the phone with me had trouble knowing exactly what could be the problem. It was as if I called my vet and asked, "What's wrong with my cat? He doesn't seem himself." Some things just can't be done long distance.

The man on the other end of the line spoke of poor lighting, but I knew they were in full sun. Maybe they needed fertilizer, but I had already added the nutrients he recommended. He said they could be too dry, but I was watering them regularly. Then again, he said, they might be being overwatered, but that was unlikely because I could plainly see that the soil was drying out between waterings.

I told him a few more symptoms, such as how the leaves were yellowing and then suddenly popping off. By the end of the call, he was convinced I needed to lay off the water.

Despite his confidence, I was confused. Everything I read online backed up the idea that something was amiss with the soils' moisture, but I couldn't understand how they were being watered too much because I would check them carefully — the way I usually check to see whether a plant needs water.

 To me, the soil seemed to need water — not so, according to the meter. My finger test had failed me. Technology set me straight.

Sticking my finger into the soil, down to the second knuckle, always works for me in the garden outdoors. When I tested the trees, the soil felt sandy and parched, so I'd water them. That's what I do with tomatoes in my raised bed garden; it's a technique that's simple and has never misled me.

But the trees continued to decline. Every day they dropped more leaves until each tree only had a few hanging on. Desperate to get to the bottom of what was ailing them, I began to reconsider my disdain for technology in the garden. On a rainy Thursday evening, I made it to a garden center just before closing and bought a digital Ferry-Morse soil moisture meter for $25.

The device is about the size of a pack of playing cards. Attached by a wire is a metal probe, which was about the size of a chopstick. When the probe is inserted into the soil around a plant's roots, the meter detects the soil's ability to conduct electricity, which is dependent on its moisture content. The results are general, not specific, but perhaps it would be more accurate than what I can feel by just poking my finger into the soil.

The meter offers more than a mere readout of the moisture. It also has a database of hundreds of plants with their ideal readings. Zero indicates that the soil is dry,  and 10 means it's waterlogged.

When I got back home with it, I selected "citrus trees" from the database, plunged the probe into the rootzone of the lemon tree and saw without doubt the cause of my trees' demise. The database showed that the ideal reading for citrus was 1, slightly above being totally dry. My reading was 9.9, only a fraction away from being totally saturated, which is the surest way to kill a citrus tree.

To me, the soil seemed to need water — not so, according to the meter. Indeed, the expert at Redenta's had guessed correctly about my overwatering issues. My finger test had failed me. Technology set me straight.

In the week following my acquiescence to garden technology, I have measured the trees' soil moisture frequently and watched it drop every day until it leveled off at the right reading. Simultaneously, the trees have begun to bud out with new leaves, and I think a few new tiny blossoms are appearing, which I read would happen if they should be restored to ideal conditions quickly enough. So far, it appears that this low-cost device saved the trees.

More than that, I've found that other indoor plants I had almost given up on were waterlogged too. They have improved since the meter has shown me how off I've been in assessing their needs.

In the coming growing season, I suspect that this meter will help me to save water, because although it's hard to overwater a garden plant outdoors in the middle of Texas' continuing drought, I still may be pouring more water into my garden than I need to.

As I continue to try to opt out of industrial agriculture and grow my own food, I have to remember that sustainability is my goal. Sometimes that involves ways we may consider to be natural, and sometimes it means that we use whatever technology can help us meet our objective.