Most of us have some farmer genes that urge us to grow our own corn and tomatoes, blackberries and oranges. Everything started in the golden crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates, according to my seventh-grade geography teacher. In the days of Hammurabi the city had its share of government scribes, merchants and moneylenders, soldiers and officials, but most people made their living growing things. It was still that way in the early years of our republic.
As a 4-year-old, I planted and watered dried beans in the space between the garage and the back fence. When nothing happened after three or four days, I dug them up and ate them. My farmer genes have always been better at the eating than the cultivating.
As a 6-year-old, living in the country along the Hudson Palisades, an ancient cherry tree gave out tasty sap in the spring that was better than any chewing gum. It produced cherries by the bushel in the summer. A hickory nut tree on the farm next door dumped some of its treasure in our yard. Pounding the hull that protected the nuts open with a rock left memorable stains on hands and clothes. In the woods behind the house grapevines supplied enough sweet fruit to give a tummy ache. A pear tree in the front yard was generous in supplying green fruit to try and test. Our mother encouraged me to plant a seed that did in fact grow into the beginnings of a tree, but we moved to Florida before the miracle of its maturity.
On Miami Beach tropical fruit was everywhere. Suburban yards were stocked with kumquats, lemons and oranges. On the smooth-barked guava the ripened fruit needed to be plucked just before falling to the ground. Hedges of Surinam cherries had their season when for a few days the ripening red fruit deepened in color until it became almost purple before dropping to the ground or in my mouth.
Later our parents moved the family to Winter Park where a great loquat tree spread its branches over the garage roof. For several weeks we could peel back the small fruit’s peach-like skin and enjoy the delicate flavor that enveloped two or three sizable seeds.
When our children were entering their teens, we lived along Lynnhaven Bay in suburban Virginia Beach. Nearly an acre of clay soil and an aquifer-fed well opened up new farming possibilities. We planted a variety of fruit trees including two kinds of apple, peach, apricot and plum trees. Chopping a large pit in the clay, we created a tomato bed laced with manure and also the bed of a mushroom cave. Not since have we enjoyed tomatoes this good. Planting a few blackberry bushes along the back wall of the house soon supplied all we could eat in their summer season. Also growing on the lot was a fig tree that cast its graceful shadows on the bordering bay water. Our collie Duchess could leap and ‘select fruit’ from the lower branches. Our success with the tomatoes tempted us to create an asparagus bed. Once again we chopped through the clay and carted in old mushroom bed material. By the third year the delicate roots had developed into the bulbs of energy that produced great fresh asparagus. Duchess had a keen eye for determining the optimum maturity for snapping off and digesting the fresh spears.
One day shopping the Sears garden center, I purchased a fruit sapling whose spindly 5-foot trunk was almost without leaves. The tag naming the fruit had been lost and it was for sale for $1.25. Planted at the foot of the asparagus bed slope, it grew like a weed. Our children say it produced the best pears they have ever eaten but by that time I was in Florida launching our newspaper business.
In our side yard we planted a Samoan Island coconut from my brother’s backyard tree in Hawaii. It produced abundant fruit but appeared to be a missile threat to the neighborhood in the hurricane season.
A safer bet was several sprouts growing under a loquat in the yard of my niece’s veterinary in Niceville, Fla. They make great shade trees. These days in the early spring they produce enough fresh fruit for great fruit pies.
An avocado grown from a seed now reaches 30 feet or more. But I have learned they are not going to produce until introduced to a tree of the opposite sex.
Last week the grocery store was featuring carambolas, the star fruit, at a dollar apiece. They have a nice crisp taste and make an interesting diversion in a salad. Before eating the ripe fruit, I extracted its eight tiny seeds. Things grow fast in Florida. Maybe I can plant one where the Samoan coconut tree was so bountiful.
Truth is I like to eat and if had my way everything we planted would feed us.
Derek Dunn-Rankin is chairman of Sun Coast Media Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.