When I moved from Savannah, Georgia to Southern California when I was in 7th grade, the fields of oranges everywhere captured my imagination. To see oranges growing in neat rows of trees and to smell the orange blossoms was just heavenly to me. Those orange groves at the Irvine Ranch are now covered with homes, not orange blossoms, and Orange County has pretty much completely lost its namesake.
Southern California was amazing to a 12 year old who really liked plants—especially ones that provided things you could eat. The farmers markets and even the grocery store were chock full of produce I had never seen before. You have to remember that having the produce selection we now have in the grocery stores is a relatively new development. Before we moved to Southern California, much of the vegetables and even some of the fruit our family ate was either frozen or canned.
Half way through 8th grade, we moved north to the San Francisco Bay Area. While, of course, I was sad to leave my friends and school, my new (to us) house had many things we didn’t have in Irvine’s densely packed tract neighborhoods. A backyard pool, perfect for a girl who loved swimming and swam competitively. But even more exciting were the trees. This house had three special trees: a lemon tree, a grapefruit tree, and best of all, an avocado tree.
All three trees were prolific producers. And yes, it is actually possible to get sick of avocados when they are constantly part of meals from breakfast (avocado omelets—delicious with monterey jack and topped with a bit of salsa), lunch (in every kind of sandwich as a mayo replacement), dinner (on salads, as salad, topped with seafood salads, mexican-inspired dishes, etc.). The avocados were small by our grocery store standards, about the size of an egg. But they were delicious.
The lemon tree came in handy nearly year ’round. The blossoms made the back patio smell divine. If we needed a lemon, lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon as a garnish, anything you could think of using lemons for, there was always plenty for the picking so it seemed to me. They were thick skinned and yielded only a bit of sharp acidic juice with a hint of orange. I now wonder if they were the prized Meyer lemons.
My father and I loved the grapefruit tree too. It produced orange-sized grapefruits. For weekend breakfasts, I would squeeze the juice by hand and make a pitcher of the fresh juice for the family. I suspect perhaps my father made after-work or weekend cocktails for himself and my mother by adding a bit of vodka because one day an electric juicer showed up and we began having pitchers of the juice at the ready.
I don’t know who planted those three trees. It may have been our eye doctor—his family lived in the house before we did. Or maybe the family before that. The trees were old. The lemon was trimmed into a bush, but the others were large (at least to a 13 year old) trees.
After experiencing life with those wonderful trees, I’ve always wanted some of my own. The Mortroski Midcentury Urban Farm currently has a peach tree, a plum tree and a baby fig tree that we planted last fall. The previous home owners neglected the peach and plum, but my dad, the son of farmers, showed me how to prune them to ensure that it not only produced fruit but also didn’t injure itself when the branches became too heavy. It rewarded us with plenty of fruit for the birds (very top of the tree), squirrels (ground and anywhere they could climb), and us (I grabbed a ladder and picked several weekends in a row). And I made delicious jam. Friends and family have already put in requests for more.
I’m not sure that the figs will make it to be turned into preserves. We love figs right from the tree. Maybe in a salad with a bit of cheese. With proscuito. I want to have so many figs that I am sick of them, then I will make fig jam. Last year our baby tree gave us 3 and the birds/squirrels/wind maybe another 3. But the nursery said I’d be surprised how fast it will grow. You see, this fig tree is a Texas native.
In the previous house, I attempted to grow a potted lime tree with cute little baby limes that the garden center told me would be perfect for slicing in half and shoving into the neck of a Mexican beer. I killed it, mostly because I had no clue how to take care of it. I’m guessing that it fried in the blazing Texas sun.
You see, citrus trees (and avocados too), do not really grow in north Texas. Despite our exceptionally hot weather from say March to the end of the October, our winters are unpredictable at best. We get snow (like Christmas Day 2012) that sometimes lingers. We get frost for several days in a row then it’s 80°F. Patio lemons and limes must be brought inside for the winter It’s definitely not California here. Down south, closer to Mexico, is where you must go if you want citrus to grow. Like those beautiful Texas Ruby grapefruit (had one for breakfast today—amazing).
So for now, picking lemons, limes, grapefruit and avocados from my own trees are only a dream. But peaches, plums and figs are a delicious, though completely different, substitute.