Orchard Paradise

peaches in Woodland Hills

‘Golden Dorsett’ apple blossoms

Orchard Paradise in Your Backyard


It’s one of the most evocative words in our lexicon. Is there any word more romantic, more rich with memories and expectations? Moreover, there is something about actually being in an orchard, surrounded by fruit bearing trees, that imparts a unique sense of reassuring abundance.

No past moments are more strongly fixed than orchard memories, whether you strolled among orange trees in Riverside, sampled avocadoes from a grove in Santa Paula, picked cherries from a ranch in the Antelope Valley, or enjoyed personally plucked peach tree produce in Pearblossom. Call them paradisal moments, where the remembrance of just being in an orchard, and the expectations that were aroused, endure long after the appetite for eating from that orchard’s fruit has gone.

The Hebrew Word for Orchard is Pardess (Paradise)

The Hebrew word for orchard, pardess, appears in the Bible three times and the word paradise is derived from it.
A compound word similar to paradise can be found in both Greek and Avestan, an ancient Persian tongue. In both of these languages, para means around or surrounding while dise means to form or build (a wall, in particular), and so paradise is physically removed from the world. Similarly,each syllable of the word orchard, as well as the words garden and yard find their origin in geard, an Old English word which refers to a walled or fenced enclosure.

Thus the idea of a garden in general, and of an orchard, in particular, appears to be concerned with separation from worldly matters through retreat into a humanly crafted version of paradise, a heavenly abode. As time goes by, I receive more and more inquiries about fruit trees. It appears that people’s impatience with bringing heaven down to earth increases with each passing day, as they seek to create an orchard paradise in their own backyards.

Backyard Orchard Paradise in Simi Valley

I was motivated to write about orchards after receiving an email from Frank Augusta, who recently moved to Simi Valley and “inherited many fruit trees,” including avocado, apple, pear, grapefruit, tangelo, lemon, orange, and tangerine. Augusta is “seeking a good book to help me care for all of the trees.” Thanks to the Internet, an excellent book on this subject can be accessed at no charge. It is a classic work on California orchard management that was written in 1889 by Edward Wickson. “The California Fruits and How to Grow Them” is the title of this wonderful volume, composed in the luminous prose of a bygone era. If you type this title into your computer’s search box, the entire book will be instantly available to you for free, courtesy of archive.org. For those of you wishing to hold a copy in your hands, you can order it for $30-$40 through Internet booksellers.

Backyard Orchard Paradise Irrigated Once of Twice a Year

Naturally, given our long years of drought, I was especially interested to see what Wickson had to say about irrigation. I was in for a surprise. Wickson has a guide to irrigation of fruit trees in localities throughout California, based on prevailing practices in each area. In Redlands, Wickson reports that “peach, apricot, and orange” should be “irrigated about six times during the year.” In Westminster, young “orchard trees are irrigated the first year, and sometimes the second; once a year, in June, is sufficient.” In Pasadena, orchards are irrigated “twice a year — June and August.”

My first thought on reading the above irrigation guidelines was that rainfall must have been more substantial 120 years ago than in our own days. But then I read about the irrigation practices employed at that time and understood how it might be possible to significantly limit irrigation frequency. Flood irrigation was once such practice. The entire orchard floor was flooded with several inches of water that then seeped into the ground, to be stored at a great depth. Ditches, furrows, and basins were also utilized. Ditches, up to one foot deep, were dug around each individual tree, filled with water, and then covered with straw mulch.

Wickson extolls cultivation: first, to maximize absorption of rainfall and, second, to pull up water from below. Wickson contends that cultivation stimulates capillary action, the process by which water is pulled up from the depths to the soil surface, which is then followed by formation of a surface crust that prevents evaporative water loss. He says the proof that cultivation works is found in the condition of the soil. “Go into a well-cultivated vineyard or orchard,” Wickson writes, “push aside the soil with the foot and moisture will be found two or three inches from the surface or even less in some soils, while on uncultivated land adjacent, digging to the depth of several feet will show nothing but hard earth, baked and arid.” Although Wickson says little about mulch, he assumes that weeds and deliberately sown green manure crops such as clover, growing between the rows of trees, are regularly turned into the earth. Thus, soil is continually enriched with organic matter that would also have a positive effect on water conservation. Remember also that we are talking about an era before tractors. I imagine that the horses which pulled the cultivating plows through the rows of trees contributed their manure to soil enrichment as well.

‘Fuerte’ avocado

Although Wickson’s book covers deciduous fruit trees and citrus, avocadoes had yet to be planted in California in the 1880‘s, so you will need to look elsewhere for information on their care. You can learn about the basics of avocado culture courtesy of the California Rare Fruit Growers, who have provided guidelines for growing fifty rare and not so rare fruits.
To access this information, go to crfg.org and click on CRFG Fruit Facts on the right side of the home page.

Persian mulberries, courtesy of Ron Chong

Tip of the Week: Special mention of the Persian or black mulberrry (Morus nigra) is long overdue and I want to thank Ron Chong of Hacienda Heights for drawing my attention to it. If you want to plant a fruit tree that is water thrifty once established, is indifferent to fertilization, and impervious to pests and diseases, consider this tree. It is a manageable species, growing not more than 30 feet tall at maturity, with richly flavored fruit. Fruit shapes vary, depending on variety, from skinny caterpillars to fat blackberries. You can grow black mulberries anywhere in Southern California, as long as winters don’t get colder than 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Incidentally, it is the white mulberry (Morus alba) whose leaves provide food for silkworms. White mulberries may pop up anywhere in Los Angeles. They are volunteer trees whose fruit is small and edible, resembling miniature blackberries, but not sweet. Information on black mulberry growing tips and varieties can also be found at crfg.org.

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