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By Jean Taggart
Several years ago, the garden editor for Sunset Magazine asked readers to write about their experiences growing dwarf citrus trees. The request inspired me to write the following letter, which I just unearthed and would like to share with my Noe Valley neighbors. My little orange tree has been sitting on my deck on 22nd Street since 1974.
Dear Garden Editor:
Today I just happened to see your April edition, in which you asked for stories about citrus trees grown in small containers. (It sometimes takes me that long to read all my Sunsets and cut out what I want to save.) I do wish I had seen it then; I would have enclosed a picture of a very healthy four-foot Valencia orange tree loaded with fruit. Unfortunately, right now my tree is going through a crisis, which I think it will survive, but I thought you might be interested in its history.
I grew up on a citrus ranch on California's Feather River. One of my earliest memories is walking hand in hand with my father through the orchards he loved, breathing the heady fragrance of the blossoms, touching the glossy green leaves, and marveling at the oranges covering the trees like so many bright ornaments. Undoubtedly, that is why I decided to acquire my own orange tree in my late 30s -- to relive a part of my childhood.
I bought my spindly seedling for 98 cents at a nursery in 1958. Its first container was a 10-inch clay pot. I placed it on my fairly sheltered and fairly sunny (except for foggy days) deck in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco.
The tree moved with me to Belvedere Island in Marin in 1960, to a deck that had filtered sun only. Because it was still spindly, I twist-tied its espaliered branches to a redwood trellis, and it soon grew into a graceful little tree.
For several years it blossomed faithfully, and just as faithfully lost every small orange that it bore. Then the tree and I moved to a sunnier deck on the leeward side of the island. It thrived in this new home, but still refused to keep its fruit.
Then in 1971, my little tree moved back to the city, to the back yard of a friend who had promised to water it. Alas, the friend proved false, and the poor tree had almost died by the time I rescued it and moved it to a sunny (except for those foggy days) garden in the Western Addition. I felt so guilty about abandoning my charge that I repotted it and cared for it with special devotion. Miraculously, it recovered, resuming its naturally round shape.
In 1974, I bought my present house on the slope of the Castro Street hill in the Noe Valley neighborhood. My large deck faces south and is pretty well sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds and the winter southerlies (unless the winds are unusually strong). My little tree is nestled in a large clay pot against the wall in the most sheltered part of the deck. It soaks up the sun all day long, all year long.
But now I must confess that it has been subjected to two more traumas over the most recent decade. The first occurred when I lost my balance on a small ladder, fell against the tree, and almost tore off one limb (the tree's, not mine). I made a crude splint and it worked--the limb healed itself.
The second came during the California drought of the early '80s. A member of my household overdosed it with fertilizer because the leaves were turning yellow. He confessed to his mistake when the tree began to shed leaves as fast as a person losing hair to chemotherapy. I frantically leached it with buckets of water and repot-ted it. Luckily, the tree revived, sprouting a full head of healthy leaves and blossoms.
Another miracle occurred three years ago when at the advanced age of 23 my tree not only blossomed but actually held on to its fruit. The first crop was about 15 small very sweet Valencias; the second crop about 25 slightly larger ones (these were just beginning to turn orange). The third crop was an amazing number of tiny green oranges, which I planned to thin out when they were a bit larger.
Which brings us to the present chapter of this brave and truly stubborn little tree, now almost 26 years old. Last month, the leaves began turning yellow again. I called the University of California Agriculture Extension, which confirmed what I thought might be the problem -- the tree was root-bound (I had forgotten it had been 10 years in the same pot). That, combined with the heat wave we had last month, likely led to its dehydration -- despite my conscientious watering.
I immediately transplanted it into a half wine barrel, but the strong winds we had two weeks ago (right after the heat wave) blew most of the remaining leaves off. I am now giving it a high-nitrogen fertilizer, thanks to your new information on this, and it seems to be holding its own.
Unfortunately, I have lost some of the larger crop, which are sweet but not quite as juicy as they would have been if I could have left them on the tree. I have also lost some of the new little oranges, despite minimal damage to the root ball in transplanting.
I doubt my story is a very good example of how best to cultivate and care for a dwarf citrus tree in a container, but at least it shows that one little orange tree can weather more than 25 years of trauma and still reward its undeserving caretaker with sweet delicious fruit.
EPILOGUE: Not only did my little tree once more regain its health and produce sweet juicy Valencias for several years after that 1984 letter, but -- in the year 2000 at the age of 42 -- it still blossoms and even produces a few oranges in its Noe Valley home. I am finally treating it with the care it should have received during its first three decades. If my father were here to read this tale, he would be alternately laughing and shaking his head. But he also would admire the resiliency of his favorite fruit tree. I now see it as my special obligation to his memory to keep this little orange tree alive for at least the rest of my own life!
Jean Taggart, 81, is a writer whose latest book project is "Taylor Street Tales," a fictionalized memoir of the 1940s in San Francisco. She is also a past contributor to the Noe Valley Voice.
The Noe Valley Voice welcomes your anecdotes and essays, particularly those pertaining to Noe Valley. Mail your manuscript, which should be under 1,000 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114. Or send an email version (not an attachment, please) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.