Get Ready…Get set…Go is coming soon!
Life gave me lemons…But this isn’t an essay about me making lemonade. In fact, if I take personal responsibility for my circumstances, I should say, “Life gave me many privileges, opportunities, and learning experiences yet, despite those advantages, I chose to plant lemons.” More specifically, little by little, I’ve planted over 120 citrus trees, including 30 Meyer and 30 Lisbon lemons, plus an assortment of Bearrs limes, Thai Makrut limes, Yuzu limes, Ranpoor limes, Australian Finger limes, Buddha’s Hand citrons, Etrog citrons, and a scattering of Kumquats, Limequats, and orange varieties. The jury is still out as to whether or not the orchard was a good idea and on icy, winter nights I worry. If my fruit project doesn’t go sour I’m sure I’ll claim that I had a clear idea of what I was getting into and I executed my plan with precision and alacrity. In case my citrus scented dream ends in failure I’m already practicing my rationalizations. “I was seduced by art,” I will say. Or I can blame the Union Pacific Railway and Republican Party Politics. Or maybe I was doomed and my genetics betrayed me. Genetics are a good place to start.
After he stepped off the boat from Copenhagen and cleared Ellis Island my Great Grandfather Marius took a train to Minnesota because back in the late 1800s that’s where the Squareheads went. I’m told that after Great Grandpa arrived in Minnesota he wrote a postcard back home to the family. “This place is even worse than Denmark,” he said, referring to the cold wind, rain and snow of the upper Midwest in winter. It didn’t take Marius long to catch a westbound train for sunny California, and that’s how I came to be here on the Central Coast today. It’s not hot enough here in Corralitos to produce fine quality oranges, mandarines, or grapefruit, but we do enjoy a nice climate for lemons and limes. And, compared to the boggy, foggy little island in the Baltic that my family came from, this place is practically Ibiza. I’ve never been high on snow and ice so I have to imagine that whatever kink in his DNA that prompted my Great Grandfather to abandon the lands of his forefathers for sunnier latitudes got passed on to me and so I share his taste for the warm sun on my back.
My farmer friend, Annabelle, gave me a book by Helena Attlee titled “The Land Where Lemons Grow.” It’s a great book, well written, and full of history about Italy, food, the citrus industry and popular culture. There is even some practical information about growing citrus that is cleverly disguised by an entertaining delivery. The author is British and her book is infused with the same romantic attachment to the warmth of the sun that animated my Great Grandfather. When I visited the lovely gardens at Ganna Walska Lotusland in Montecito it all came together for me. There is a splendid lemon walk in Lotusland where trellised lemons cover an arched passage so that you are shaded by the foliage from the hot sun as you pass beneath. A luxurious display of beautiful yellow fruits hangs overhead and the refreshing scent entices you to reach for the lemons. Beyond the lemon arbor the Santa Ynez Mountains make for a magnificent backdrop. The scene looks for all the world like a page out of “The Land Where Lemons Grow” come to life. The old fashioned, colorful labels that fruit packers slapped on wooden crates back in the day come to mind too, with rows of green trees pictured in the foreground, bearing golden fruit, with blue skies overhead, dramatic mountains on the horizon, a Mediterranean style villa on the side. And there’s usually a frolicking young woman pointing to an inviting brand name like Sunny Cove, Wood Lake Nymph, or Sea Side.
The dreamy fruit box labels were no accident. During the Civil War Lincoln and the Republican Party sought to unite the west and east coasts by linking them with railroads. To stimulate the construction the federal government granted the Union Pacific Railway and the Central Pacific every other square mile of land along the proposed rail routes so that the companies had assets to leverage for loans from European banks. With the backing of the capitalists they began construction and to promote their new railroads they advertised the virtues of the western lands that they were opening up for development. The Egyptians may have invented math, the Greeks invented pizza and the Hebrews invented monotheism, but the Americans invented mass marketing, and in the promotion of the railways and the settling of the southwest no holds were barred and no exaggeration was too shameless. PT Barnum ought to be our patron saint. The lure of sweet oranges and tangy lemons- a virtual Garden of Eden simply waiting to be populated- was heavy juju for the poor, shivering northern Europeans and they came pouring out of Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. My great grandpa was one of millions.
As soon as my atavistic dreams (or illusions) of a sunny, citrusy, Edenic garden were awoken by Lotusland and Helena Attlee’s writing I began planting. An excellent citrus nursery, Four Winds, is just around the corner from my home so sourcing the plants was easy. I took note of the ground that I’ve got that is south facing so that it enjoys the most sun. I measured out the slopes because I know that cold air sinks, causing a slight breeze which can be just enough to keep frost from settling as it does on bottom ground. I staked the space, stretched out the drip tubing for irrigation and planted. I went in with my neighbor, Zea, from Fruitilicious Farm, and bought copious amounts of organic citrus fertilizer. I cloaked the trees with frost protection fabric when the cold threatened and I pruned and shaped the trees as they developed. Now the first harvests are here and there’s WAY more fruit than I could ever use. Things seem to be starting successfully so I need to make this essay about YOU making lemonade- or lemoncello, or lemon tarts, or lemony salad dressing, or all of the myriad of other recipes that feature lemons. And obviously, we haven’t stopped growing all of our other vegetable crops. The season is stirring to a start and we will send more specific information on our delivery schedule next week.
Andy and all of us at Mariquita Farm
© 2022 Essay and Photos by Andy Griffin.
Photos of Fruit Packing Labels courtesy of Zea Sonnabend.