Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: Suburbia vs. Farmland

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When I was ten years old, my family moved from one suburban home to another deep in the concrete jungles of Los Angeles county. But this new place had something amazing in the backyard. To one side of the required lawn was a small fruit orchard. There was an apricot so full of golden orbs its branches swept the ground, and a white peach planted long before the variety was popular in the supermarket. A plum, a nectarine, an apple. Even a Valencia orange from the original citrus orchards before the land was sold for houses.

I had never seen a fruit orchard, much less picked fruit to eat direct from the tree. I spent most of my summer under those shady branches, sticky and happy, gorging on ripe fruit until I could eat no more, throwing the pits over the fence into the wash behind our house. I would disappear into that orchard, my folks having to call and call for me to come in.

In a short-lived fit of homesteading madness, my mother attempted to can all the fruit that first summer we moved in. I don’t think she’d ever put anything into a jar before. I remember cutting up endless mountains of fruit as my mother, sweaty-faced and wispy-haired from all the steam, stirred a gigantic pot and grew less and less patient by the day. That was the first and last year we enjoyed homemade plum and peach and apricot jams. I never forgot the taste.

almost blossoms

credit Debby Zygielbaum

After that, what fruit didn’t get eaten by me or the fruit rats rotted on the ground. Although we still made fresh juice on weekend mornings from the orange tree, the orchard was in decline.

Then my mother decided to put in a swimming pool and the orchard was razed to re-install the obligate lawn. The Valencia orange was the lone survivor – only to succumb to crown rot a few months later from being buried under the pool tailings. My edible paradise became just another suburban food desert filled with Queen palms, grass, and Rhaphiolepis.

While I enjoyed the new pool, I mourned the loss of my fruit trees. I wish I’d known then what I know now. That simply pulling soil away from the orange could have saved it, that the mess and tree rats were just signs of poor management. How having fresh fruit in our backyard was priceless.

It is only with perspective and experience that I see how we were at the intersection of the push from agriculture to urban. Just another solidly middle-class family living in a new sub-division built on farmland. Without a clue to what treasure we’d had in the twenty-year-old, productive fruit trees left behind from the previous owners.

These days, I care for around 80 mixed fruit trees as well as the same amount of olives (in addition to RSV’s 200 acres of wine grapes). I’m learning how to control codling moth in the apples, what to do with the leaf curl aphids in the plums. How to keep the ground squirrels out of the peaches (trap, trap, and then trap some more). How to prune and shape the trees in the winter and then thin the fruit in the spring so the branches don’t break in the summer. My inner 10-year-old delights in taking the resulting bounty to the culinary staff at the winery to be transformed into apple butter, plum and fig jams, pear tarts, and so much more. Well, the fruit that survives my eager hands and mouth, that is.

We will be installing an edible landscape at RSV’s winery, so I will be adding even more fruit trees and berries to my repertoire. It’s been a long journey from that small, urban orchard of my youth, but I’ve come full circle.

 

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.