About five this morning three things happened. I woke up in my sister’s house, which lies in the neighborhood of my childhood, along one of the thousand plain, unlined roads that make rectangular grid lines of themselves through the orange groves.
A mockingbird began to run through his upbeat repertoire outside my window. I was surprised at this, because I never heard them as a child. I wondered which local species he was imitating at the coolest moment of the day, 73 degrees. He didn’t sing for long.
About the same time that I saw on the forecast the prediction of 108 degrees today, I heard the whole house fan come on and start blowing all the previous day’s residual hot air out of the attic and all the rooms. In the summer my brother-in-law turns it on as soon as the outdoor temperature becomes cooler than that under the roof. It really lessens the need to use the air conditioner.
But tomorrow morning there will not be enough cooling off to work this system. While I was driving away in my air conditioned Subaru and toward a more coastal destination, the Central Valley was turning into a furnace. Most of the next ten days over 100 and four of them above 110.
As I lingered with my brother’s family over dinner last night, we talked about various people we knew who were leaving California for one reason or another. Somebody’s mother had moved here years before from Missouri but had to go back, because she was always sickly in California. Was it the dust? Everyone around the table agreed that the dust can be oppressive.
After dinner we went outside where the children ran on the lawn, and I admired the way the succulents thrive at my brother’s place, in the heat, yes, but under the shade and frost protection of the patio roof. Certain plants love the climate, and of course that dust blows off the fields that are in between plantings such as I saw on my drive in: cantaloupes, tomatoes, corn, alfalfa, cotton…. That Valley dust feeds the nation!
It’s also a component of the air of which I breathe deeply when I visit in the warmer seasons, the scent of my childhood. That air is like a caress, and a tonic, an atmosphere to sink into. The late evenings are the loveliest time to sit out, after the sun has gone down and air has lost its oven-like personality. One wants to stay up for hours recovering from the day’s fierceness, and not go inside where the air may be cool, but it’s artificially so.
At the end of today’s drive, I arrived in the southern reaches of the state in a place where the ocean influence is felt morning and evening. Windows and doors are open so that soft breezes can blow through my hosts’ house. I picked up granddaughter Annie at the airport, and this weekend we’ll go to her cousin Pat’s wedding in San Diego.
Today’s photos are all from my brother’s place, which is the house I grew up in. He has made a lot of changes, but it’s all good, and more pleasing every time I visit. Tomorrow, more family to visit, more gardens! Stay tuned…
When my Landscape Lady suggested Delta Sunflowers for my front garden, she said they would reseed themselves year after year. Those in her own garden have done that, and she gave me my original plants from her excess of volunteers when they came up in May of 2017. My plants did make their own starts in succeeding springtimes, but not very many, which I think has something to do with the thick bark mulch. The seedlings that did emerge were not in the right places, so I had to transplant them.
Here I will insert three pictures I took on the dry east side of California’s Central Valley before I ever knew what these sunflowers were, or dreamed that this species would end up in my own garden. These shots show how well they do with no water at all, in temperatures often well above 100°, all summer long. They just keep going.
Last fall and this, I saved some flower heads from my plants, but I could not see any seeds in them. They are very stiff and prickly by the time they are dry enough to be certain the seeds will have matured. This year my second picking of them I set on the workbench as I was going into the house, and there they sat for a couple of weeks, where I walked past many times a day.
One day I noticed seeds under them – the hidden seeds had simply fallen out. I knocked each bristle brush flower hard against the wood and more seeds came out, so now I have a good collection. I can start them myself in the greenhouse and have some sturdy seedlings to plant in exactly the right spots next spring. 🙂
The orange blossoms beckoned, from my youth, from the Central Valley, from the treasury of olfactory memories in my mind, and from the image imprinted there the last time I visited my childhood home at this time of year. I didn’t remember the scent itself, but I remembered the ecstasy of inhaling it.
In response I made a little road trip last week, and spent time in Tulare, Kern and Fresno Counties, smelling citrus blooms and visiting with family and friends. I stayed with my sister Nancy, the farmer, who lives in the middle of the groves of trees that she and her husband care for. The Sumo mandarins that directly surround them were just about to bloom, so they had recently been covered with bee netting.
What? you ask. Yes, they are protecting the trees from the bees, because if the Sumos get cross-pollinated with other citrus such as lemons they may make seeds, and that is a no-no for seedless mandarins. It’s just one of the many sorts of special treatment that the trees and the harvest get, and an example of the extra work involved to grow this fruit that was developed in Japan. If you haven’t eaten a Sumo it may be because the costs add up quickly to make them expensive in the stores.
Nancy found a few Sumos remaining from this year’s harvest to give me. They are large for a mandarin orange, seedless, very tasty, and their loose rind makes them super easy to peel.
I came home with oranges from my father’s navel orange trees, too, which I didn’t expect. That fruit would normally be all picked and gone to market long before now, but this year the trees in the Valley are loaded with fruit, and it’s very small. That is a recipe for not being able to sell it, so the oranges fall on the ground eventually and the farmers take a loss. Farming is hard in many ways, and it’s not getting easier.
The next few photos below are from years past, taken at various times of year, of these country roads and places where I spent my childhood.
The view below of the Sierras with the sun rising behind reveals the profile of a formation that looks from there like a man lying on his back. We call it Homer’s Nose (though I didn’t remember “meeting” Homer until recently, and only heard about him from afar):
Since I was “so close,” one day I drove farther south an hour and a half to visit another Farm Girl, Kim of My Field of Dreams. After reading blog posts about each other’s gardens and families for many years, we enjoyed our first face-to-face meeting. We were like old friends or long-lost sisters (well, we are sisters in Christ, after all) and talked and talked, while I ate her delicious flourless muffins and got my wish of a spell of porch-sitting with Kim, looking out at the gardens that she was anticipating planting this week.
I didn’t want to leave, but I must. I got back on the two-lane highway with crazy tailgaters, and survived the ordeal again in reverse. When I arrived safe and sound back at Nancy’s it was the most relaxing thing to be able to sit outdoors before dinner and chat. Here we get chased indoors by fog or cold breezes very early, but there we were warmed by the rays of the sun on our backs and the air was still, and laden with orange scents. 🙂
I spent three days with my family. The last night we four siblings all were together, with some spouses and a few members of the younger generations, at the house where we grew up together, where my brother now lives. There again we ate our barbecue on the patio, and never went in, and it was the sweetest thing just to be together with those persons so fundamental to our psyches. My brother helped me pick a couple of bags of oranges from the same trees that have fed us for decades — they weren’t too tiny — and I’m confident that the eating of them will help me to prolong the savor of my brother and sisters and the whole family that I love.
I remember when I first learned in a practical way about microclimates, from my friend Rhonda who had a lovely cactus garden in our county. I also tried to grow a few cacti, but they all got waterlogged from rain and then froze to death in their first winter. Rhonda lived on a small mountain, where the cold air descending would usually keep rolling right on downhill so that the plants barely noticed it going by. That was her microclimate, so different from my back yard where the damp and freezing air would settle on my cactus and turn all their juices to ice crystals.
My friend Dick lives on a smaller hill in a generally more extreme climate zone, but a similar weather pattern holds sway so that frosts are often averted. There may be other factors involved in his microclimate that we didn’t discuss, but in any case, starting about 50 years ago, but more intensely in the last decade, he has been enjoying his freedom to experiment widely.
In a previous post I mentioned how before that, he was one of the friends with whom I would ride bicycles all around the country roads and through the orchards connecting our little Central Valley communities. Many of them weren’t actually towns, and the primary one in my life was a shrinking town, even then. I think its population peaked at 100, which was the figure embossed on the town limit sign as long as I can remember.
We had a fire station with a volunteer fire department, but I can imagine that when an alarm sounded, it might have taken an hour for the firefighters to get to the station from out in the groves or fields, if they were close enough to hear it in the first place. In any case, it seemed that every year or two some old building would burn down. None was ever rebuilt. The gas station where we pumped up our bike tires and bought 8-oz. sodas didn’t burn, but when it went out of business, there it sat, to rust.
It makes me sad, all this decay of the man-made things, and the lack of prosperity that once was, in former times when people concentrated their energies and money in the local businesses and organizations instead of driving 20 miles to shop and go out to dinner. But I myself wouldn’t dream of investing there, and if I were like my brother and sister who do still live on surrounding farm property, I would be working hard just to keep my own family and property alive. Given the pervasive vandalism and theft, it would take a good deal of optimism to try to renovate anything.
But I do like to visit, and to smell the particular flavor of dusty air that was soft and mild when I was there earlier this week. October is a good month, between the scorching summer and the winter dampness that seeps into your bones, or manifests in tule fog, a driver’s torture to navigate through. But let me try again to stop describing the cons, and get back to all the things I like about my childhood home.
I’m sure I mostly appreciate it because of its nostalgic value, and because of my people living there still. One of them is my friend on the hill, who had gone away for decades and all over the world before he returned and was able to take over the ranch that had belonged to his parents. At least three generations of farmer-gardeners have been farming this particular property, cultivating citrus for commercial markets, and gardens of ornamentals and edibles for home use.
Dick is trying to grow every kind of mandarin orange that exists. These are mostly in the areas close to the house, where he does what he calls the “fun stuff.” Lower down in the flatter areas are the oranges and blood oranges he will send to the packing house. I think he is about ready to plant a section of mandarins for market, too.
He also grows at least three varieties of lemons, I know, because he sent me home with Eureka, Lisbon, and these striped Pink Lemonade varieties. If you count Meyer lemons, well, he has those, too. I just now cut into a Pink Lemonade to see if it is in fact pink inside, as its name would lead you to believe, and yes, it is:
No one in my family knows what variety of lemon my father raised, but from reading online I had guessed Eureka. Dick says that Lisbon is now the most common lemon grown commercially, but he also said with certainty that my father’s would have been Eureka. Did I tell you that both of our fathers were citrus farmers? Having Dick for a friend is like having another brother. I feel so lucky that both my real brother and my old friend-like-a-brother (not to mention my sister, who is the on-the-ground farmer in her household) are deeply planted in the world of citrus, and that through them I can grow this part of my connection to my father and to those trees that densely enveloped our house and put food on our table.
It was the movie “Ushpizin” that gave me any knowledge or appreciation for citrons. If you haven’t seen this wonderful film please consider my hearty recommendation. Apart from the ritual use of citrons, the interwoven stories of forgiveness, redemption and hospitality make it one of the few movies I wanted to buy for myself, and I did.
It is about Hasidic Jews in Israel preparing for and celebrating the Feast of Booths (in real life Jews are in the middle of this feast right now!), and every household wants to invest in the most beautiful citron they can afford. At the time of Sukkot, a truly perfect specimen – their word for citron is etrog – might cost you hundreds of dollars! This article tells about the history of that tradition, and addresses the question of what is to be done with them after the feast when they are no longer useful ceremonially.
But what is a citron, a fruit that seems to have little to recommend it as a fruit? It is believed to be “one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization.” It does appear to me that it might be an ancestor of the lemon….
Part of the loot that I brought home from the fertile hill in the Valley I arranged on a platter:
And there in the middle are the two strangest fruits that I was introduced to: A Buddha’s Hand Citron, holding a Finger Lime. The Buddha’s Hand has been around for a long time in the Far East, where it has symbolic value as well; it is valued primarily for its perfume, and typically doesn’t contain any pulp or juice, but can nonetheless be eaten in various ways. I guess I will leave mine out on the kitchen counter so that sometimes when I pass by I can pick it up and inhale its romantic and complicated scent. In that aspect I agree that it is more excellent than the lemon.
That wrinkly green fruit on the platter is a Kaffir Lime. I had been pronouncing it “keefer,” and its etymology is not simple. It came with a separate branch of Kaffir Lime leaves, which it seems are often used whole as a flavoring or aromatic, in a pot of rice or Thai stew, or in a hot bath, one leaf at a time. I’m still reading about them.
The little thing sitting in the place where the palm of Buddha’s hand would be, and still on the plant in Dick’s hand directly above, is an Australian Finger Lime, Citrus australasica. When we were standing next to the tree Dick picked one and slit it open with his knife — there were the tiny translucent pearls of juice popping out, ready to sprinkle on one’s tongue or bowl of ice cream — I wished we had brought a scoop at least down from the house. And then I wished that I had put him on Pause so as to snap that photo, with his scuffed leather work gloves as the backdrop. The culinary possibilities of finger limes in a world of Food Art are vast, as one can see with a quick search online, where I found my photo. I’m not ready to slice into my own little lime yet.
Some things I don’t have good pictures of are a 20′ tall wisteria shaped like a Christmas Tree, 40 avocado trees of eight varieties, and Sacred Datura, a plant in the nightshade family that is certainly exotic. Datura wrightii is sometimes used as a hallucinogen, but since it is not edible, and all parts are highly poisonous, I personally do not hold it in very high esteem.
I was amazed at how many shrubs and trees were in bloom in the fall, and at all the bees buzzing on the hill. But then, the nights are still mild in that area, and the daytime high was 80° every day I was there. Delta sunflowers such as I plan to plant in my front yard next spring are blooming enthusiastically – those plants grow without a drop of water all summer long along the highways in the Central Valley, so when they get even a few tablespoons of moisture in the heat they respond beautifully, as can be seen in the second photo above. Dick threw a dead sunflower plant over the wall and next thing you know, he had them growing in the grove below as well. He says that birds planted his original ones.
This photo reveals the rock I referred to when I said that the hill is a hunk of granite. The soil around the house is therefore very shallow, but obviously it has been lovingly built up over the last century so that the plants have the benefit of living organic material above and rich minerals below, in which to sink their roots. The kind of dirt found naturally in the area is called San Joaquin Valley Loam, and it is rich in granite but low in organic material.
Soil-building is a project that can never be neglected; even if you have a richer loam naturally, it will in time wear out. Dick raises earthworms whose castings contribute to the health of the system, and he is always adding organic materials of various kinds to his groves and to the gardens. He doesn’t want to be one of the farmers who thinks that “dirt is a place you park your tractor.” I don’t personally know any farmers like that, but he says they are too common.
Gardeners like me don’t have to make a living from our land. If we fail at growing something because we were too cheap to amend the soil, or we forgot to irrigate, or were too lazy to dig weeds, it won’t affect our lives much. The farmers who make a living by horticulture and agriculture have to be sure they are giving the plants what they need, and that means caring for the soil and the whole environment, which is not a simple task; but the rewards include a connection to the land and the weather and the changing seasons that so many people never get.
I am inspired by my farming friends and family to be a better gardener, and to pay closer attention to my work and the natural world around me. Then I will be true to the impulses that were bred into me as a child, and my closeness to the earth and also to my fellow farmers will grow.
This last picture I took as I was driving back from Dick’s house. I wanted to save the image of that golden hill behind the tiny town, one that we kids used to climb so we could enjoy the view. It doesn’t look very tall, especially from this distance, but it’s to the scale of the orange trees that also aren’t very tall. You can see a lot of sky in this country – Let’s hope and pray that those skies drop some rain on all our fruit trees really soon!