Last October I had the pleasure of speaking before a meeting of the Bakersfield Garden Project. The topic was composting, but the discussion ranged into pruning trees, planting, and cultivar selection, because of great questions from the participants.
It was very affirming to find such dedicated garden-folk gathered there, because those are people with a noble mission: Led by their founder, Friar Jack Estes of St. Luke's Anglican Church, they encourage growing edibles in residential gardens, and glean fruits and vegetables for the needy.
Last month, they met at the Shafter Research Station, an agriculture project that began in 1922. On the grounds of that facility are a great many mature citrus trees, some of heirloom breeds. The good graces of the local
farming community keep it running, as government funding was cut last year. BGP volunteers arrived with ladders, clippers, baskets and many vehicles, and picked 3,000 pounds of fruit, a record harvest for the facility. The fresh fruit has been distributed to the Golden Empire Gleaners, the Senior Sack Lunch Program, local food shelves, and other organizations helping and sheltering the homeless and indigent.
The BGP makes it easy to do a good deed. Invite them to pick fruit that would otherwise fall to the ground unharvested. They make no demands about quantity or location. Most large citrus trees yield far more fruit than a typical family consumes. Donating it without having to harvest it should be a great incentive to busy people or those uncomfortable carrying heavy loads down ladders.
Their website is gardenprojectbakersfield.org (with informative links including videos and recipes). They can also be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Friar Jack Estes at 871-8551.
Of course they don't only pick citrus. They are delighted to come and get stone fruit in summer, persimmons and pomegranates in autumn, and other crops whenever someone invites them to gather a donation.
The public is also invited to their meetings, held at 10 a.m. the first Saturday of each month at St. Luke's Anglican Church, at 2671 Mt. Vernon Ave.
The entrance is on Mall View Road just east of Mt. Vernon on the south side of Highway 178 by the East Hills Shopping Center. They bring in speakers on a variety of gardening topics, and at the close of each meeting (approximately at noon), share a lunch salad and fruit from members' gardens.
It surprises me to see smaller crowds at the local farmers markets in this season than in summertime. Yes, peaches and pluots are excellent, but so are tangerines, oranges and pumelos. The big difference between buying from a grocery store or from local farmers is the varieties available and freshness.
At one booth on Saturday mornings at the Golden State Mall (corner of F Street and the 204), I've been impressed to see five different kinds of tangerine. As weeks go by the offerings vary, as some ripen later than others, and several of the farmers grow over a dozen citrus varieties.
One reason so many types are available locally is that wholesale fruit trees are propagated in Kern County. Our local growers have access to the newest and best cultivars, as well as heirloom varieties brought back into commerce.
A particular favorite fruit of mine is the Pumelo. This is an ancestor of modern grapefruit, and is peeled and disassembled to eat, much like a giant tangerine. Some varieties are yellow inside, including the Melogold, California, Sweetie and Oroblanco, which have low acid content and very juicy flesh. The most popular cultivar, the Chandler Pumelo, is a lovely rosy pink within. This is the one typically found at markets or Costco. It was bred at UC Riverside back in the 1950s and was named after a faculty member. Pumelos are the most fragrant of edible citrus.
Tangerines and mandarins are available in dozens of varieties. One of the more recent and delicious seedless cultivars is the Gold Nugget tangerine (also bred at UC Riverside), with a particularly thick and bumpy skin that peels fairly easily.
Page Mandarin is a spherical bright orange seedless cultivar that needs cutting, as it peels stubbornly, and has arguably the best flavor in the whole group. One of the oldest types is the Satsuma, the lumpy-looking oriental tangerines that peel nearly as easily as bananas. In case you're wondering, tangerines and mandarins are synonyms, no difference between them.
The citron is the most fragrant citrus of all, but is indelibly bitter and has thick pith. They are used in some ancient religious ceremonies, and as decorations. Many local growers offer the Buddah's Hand citron, an ornamental variety that can perfume a room, and looks more like a sea creature than like its relative, the lemon. The zest of citron can be added to a marmalade recipe to add sweet and appetizing fragrance.
Local nurseries offer a wide range of types grafted on semi-dwarf and dwarf rootstocks for residential planting. Newspaper ads even mention citrus-tasting events (such as one today at White Forest Nursery), so those shopping for a fruit tree can try before they buy. Such a deal!
Citrus trees are generally trouble-free, although some are more frost-tolerant than others, and all can be susceptible to sucking insects. Dormant spraying immediately after harvest is a good way to eliminate scale and aphids. Snails do climb trees, and can feed on citrus, so it's good to check for their presence and take measures accordingly.
When harvesting citrus its important to use a clipper or garden shears. By cutting the stem right above the fruit, and keeping that little green nub on the fruit, the shelf life is greatly increased. Pulling the fruit loose, and tearing the skin at the top, leads to desiccation in days instead of weeks.