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Gardening : Growing Rare Fruit Is a Tasteful Pursuit


Twelve years ago my neighbor Jim brought me a bowl of delicious home-grown figs, and a hobby as a rare-fruit grower ignited and developed into a wonderful pastime.

At my Alhambra home I specialize in mandarins, which are commonly called tangerines.

Since I discovered that mandarins were my favorite fruit, I have sought to collect all available varieties to keep myself in tangerines through most of the year. I start the season off with Satsuma mandarin in November; enjoy Clementine, Dancy, Honey, Page, Fremont, Wilking, Kara, Kinnow and Pixie mandarins along the way, and and end with the rich and juicy Encore mandarin in June and July.

My favorite mandarin is the Pixie, a small to medium variety that ripens between March and June in inland Southern California. It is one of the sweetest mandarins you will ever taste if you keep it on the tree until mid-April and let its flavor develop. Pixie is a variety that will allow you to have mandarins late in the season.

For a time I was also growing about 25 varieties of figs with an idea of tasting all that existed and then planting permanently the finest fig I had sampled. I even belonged to "The Friends of the Fig Society," an organization of fig fanciers which has since gone out of existence.

I found my favorite fig to be the Ventura, a large green fig with deep red flesh that tastes just like strawberry jam out of the jar.

I meditated over what plants to use to give my back yard more privacy and at the same time provide me with fine fruits to eat. I discovered the pineapple guava, a delicious and refreshing fruit with pineapple, guava and strawberry flavor that simply melts in your mouth. I planted seven shrubs across my back wall fence. I chose the Nazemetz, a large pear-shaped fruit of excellent quality that is one of the best varieties.

I found that the best way to create strong pineapple guava branches is to cut them back several times. This is very necessary to enable the pineapple guava to grow into a tall, full hedge that will support great amounts of fruit.

Planted next to my driveway is my strawberry guava bush, which gives me deep wine-red juicy guavas with a texture and flavor similar to a strawberry. The strawberry guava's flesh is aromatic and perfumed, and reminds me of a cherry. I often pick strawberry guavas on the way to and from my car, popping handfuls into my mouth with great pleasure.

After seeing a cherimoya fruit in the store for $3.99 a pound and tasting it firsthand, I had to have a cherimoya tree. The cherimoyas are large, heart-shaped fruit with various degrees of custard-like pineapple, banana, and papaya flavor.

The disadvantage to planting cherimoya is the lack of certain insects to pollinate it, which is not the case in its native Peru and Ecuador. If you want good cherimoya production, you have to hand pollinate it yourself, a labor that many busy people might not appreciate.

However, the Chaffey cherimoya, which is a medium to large fruit that grows well both inland and at the coast, will give you some fruit production without hand pollination. My Chaffey is growing in leaps and bounds, and I'm awaiting my first crop. Eventually I will hand pollinate; I just don't have the time right now.

If you're game to try a relative of the cherimoya, plant the atemoya, which pollinates itself. The fruit has very similar characteristics to the cherimoya, but is better adapted to warm, semi-tropical conditions. It doesn't always mature properly in some areas. Best variety for this locale would be African Pride, which is the commercial variety in Australia.

I fertilize all my plants with Miracle Gro two to three times a year. I supplement with Ironite to strengthen roots and liquid B-1 to induce growth. I apply organic compost at the bottom of each fruit tree once a year.

I vigorously work to control the ants at the base of all fruit trees by applying diazinon as needed. Ants act as hosts to several diseases that invade fruit trees, so it is very important to spray lower tree trunks periodically at the base and trim off all branches that touch the ground to prevent ant access to trees.

Citrus can be planted any time of year, but spring is best. For the subtropical trees mentioned here (cherimoya, atemoya, pineapple guava, strawberry guava, and fig) spring and early summer are usually the best times to plant outdoors. Make sure to dig a hole about twice the diameter of the root ball and equal to its depth. When you put the tree in the hole, make sure the top of the root ball is even with the surrounding soil level.

Joining the California Rare Fruit Growers is the best advice I can give anyone who wants to grow rare fruit successfully. This group may be contacted at the Fullerton Arboretum, CSUF, Fullerton, CA 92634.

South Seas Nursery, P.O. Box 4974, Ventura, Calif. 93007, carries many varieties of rare fruit mentioned here for mail order.

Oregon Exotics Rare Fruit Nursery, 1065 Messinger Road, Grants Pass, Ore., 97527, stocks many rare figs and rare fruit for mail order.

Pixie mandarin is propagated by La Verne Nursery and can be ordered at larger nurseries.

Friedman is a longtime business instructor for the Los Angeles Unified School and the Los Angeles Community College districts .

READERS IDEASfor 'Green Thumb' Readers wishing to share their gardening experiences and advice with others should send queries or manuscripts to Real Estate Editor, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, 90053, or Fax them to (213) 237-4712.

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