The Watsonville mathematician-turned-farmer
behind California’s largest private citrus
collection talks lemons, limes and mandarins
By Gene Lester
As told to Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Eric Wolfinger
It started out slowly, going down to the nursery and buying one tree at a time. Now, I have about 250 different varieties of citrus. When they’re blooming, the scent of the blossoms is really something.
I can’t really explain why I like citrus. Why does someone like broccoli? Why did Imelda Marcos collect shoes? It just appeals to me. There are 12 acres here at roughly 850 feet elevation, overlooking the Pajaro Valley. It took me years to find this property. I was looking for something that had a nice southern exposure, something that was secluded but not remote. I didn’t want flat land, but I didn’t want goat land either. This place has all those characteristics. I bought it in ’84 and moved up here from Monte Sereno in ’89.
I started working in 1958 at Douglas Aircraft Co. as a programmer. We had one of the first mainframe computers, when there were only six in the whole world. Then I went to IBM and worked there for 34 years. When I started at IBM in 1961, a computer took up a whole room. Now, it’s hard to imagine life without them.
Over the years, I’ve found a few people who gave me more knowledge about citrus, but mainly you have to teach yourself. A friend of mine in Finland, Jorma Koskinen, started an excellent website called Citrus Pages that is full of useful information for collectors. You can see photos of my place there, and I contributed some of the descriptions.
I don’t have favorites, but I think you ought to plant things you can’t buy in stores. I don’t grow any oranges, except for a couple really special ones. Oranges all taste alike. In a blind taste test, you’d never be able to tell the difference. And why would I want to take up space with something you can buy for $1 a bag? On the other hand, mandarins are all different. Every mandarin that I can think of has a different flavor and a unique season, so I have maybe 50 different kinds of mandarins.
Another factor to take into account is our climate. You can’t grow grapefruit here. You have to have high heat 24/7 for pomelos and grapefruit, otherwise, the rinds are going to be too thick and the fruit would take at least 14 months to sweeten. The nights are just too cold here for grapefruit. You also have to be careful with limes because they’re cold intolerant.
I get lots of people coming up here visiting and tasting. There’s a tasting every spring with the California Rare Fruit Growers group. I have them sample a winged lime in the collection that only I have. It has some sugar in it, and everybody likes it. Right next to it is a key lime, which is probably the highest on the scale of acidity, so if you taste those two together, you can experience a huge difference. They also enjoy the juicy ugli fruit from the West Indies, finger limes that have little pearls of juice in them like caviar and kieffer limes, which are pretty strong—mostly the leaves are used in Thai cooking.
Chef David Kinch of Manresa restaurant has been coming here every season with his staff for about 10 years now. He puts on a Citrus Modernista dinner using my fruit, and his pastry chef Stephanie Prida makes stupendous sorbets and citrus desserts. Chef Cal Stamenov from Bernardus Lodge has been here a few times and puts on a citrus luncheon every year, too.
There’s also a guy from Marin named Robert Lambert, who makes jams, jellies and marmalades with my fruit. They’re very special, and he doesn’t need large quantities of anything. He also puts up salted Meyer lemons that sell out as soon as he makes them.
Citrus trees don’t require much care. I probably don’t take as good care of them as I should, but at 81 I don’t have enough time or energy anymore. They have to be watered in the summertime. They should be fertilized regularly. That’s about it. Most of mine are dwarf varieties, so they don’t really need to be pruned.
I wouldn’t say there are any huge benefits to doing this, except I get to meet people like David and others who come by. It’s just what I like to do. There are so many varieties of citrus that it’s a hobby that has stretched on for a long time.
GROW YOUR OWN
Citrus are bursting into local markets this month. They mostly come from down south, but local Eureka and Meyer lemons are appearing at farmers’ markets from growers like Country Flat Farm in Big Sur, Coke Farm in Aromas and Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz.
If you’d rather grow your own or try more exotic varieties of citrus, Four Winds Growers in Watsonville has some good advice. The family-owned nursery is one of the largest citrus wholesalers in California and sells some 250,000 young trees a year, propagated on its 13-acre property just downhill from Gene Lester’s place and nurtured at its facilities in Fremont and Winters.
Lexa Dillon, great-granddaughter of the company’s founder, grew up in the citrus business and says the following varieties are especially interesting and well suited for the coastal climate of the Monterey Bay Area:
- Trovita Orange: Sweetens without the intense heat needed for other varieties.
- Moro Blood Orange: Develops striking purple-red color even in coastal areas.
- Encore Mandarin: Tastes like sweet candy.
- Variegated Pink Lemon: Blooms and new growth are fuchsia, flesh is pale pink.
- New Zealand Lemonade: Tastes like lemonade.
Other exotics like Buddha’s Hand Citron, Australian Finger Limes and yuzu can also be grown here, but may need frost protection on our coldest nights.
Kumquats are not recommended due to our cool temperatures, but Dillon says a good alternative is Calamondin—a beautiful tree that flowers and fruits almost constantly and is used in the Philippines for juice and for seasoning fish.
She advises using the fragrant multi-fingered Buddha’s Hand as a natural air freshener in your car or bathroom.
Four Winds opens for sales directly to the public from its nursery at wholesale prices once a year for the Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers Open House. The next one takes place on June 20, 2015.
COOKING WITH CITRUS
Big bowls of lemons, limes and oranges start appearing on the countertops at Stone Creek Kitchen in Monterey during citrus season. Owners Kristina Scrivani and Linda Hanger get excited about using citrus in almost everything they prepare for the holidays, from salad dressings and stews to spice cookies.
“The beauty of citrus is that it’s already made by nature to have layers of flavor—the brightness of the juice and the bitter intensity of the zest,” says Scrivani.
She especially loves using citrus zest and suggests the following cooking tips:
Use lime zest instead of juice in guacamole—it’s more flavorful and doesn’t water the dip down.
Scrub and dry citrus well before zesting—and use a microplane for the job.
In winter, replace vinegar in salad dressings with citrus juice and zest.
Add whole fresh slices of lemon or orange to stews, curries and stir-fries. They will brighten the dish and cook down like caramelized onions, becoming completely edible.
EXPLORE: Cabrillo College will hold a one-day “Citrus Celebration” on Feb. 28 from 10am–1:30pm. Students will meet local citrus farmers at the Cabrillo Farmers’ Market and then create a citrus feast at the Cabrillo Bakeshop that will include Zesty Crostini, Lemon Herb Pasta, Lemon Chicken, Citrus Biscuits, Meyer Lemon Refrigerator Cookies and Meyer Lemon Ice Cream. Materials fee: $15.
LOCAL FOOD IN SEASON
December, January and February
Fruits: Apples • Asian Pears • Avocados • Grapefruits • Grapes • Guavas • Kiwis • Kumquats • Lemons • Limes • Mandarins • Oranges • Parsnips • Pears • Persimmons • Pomegranates* • Pomelos
Vegetables: Artichokes* • Arugula • Asparagus** • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Greens • Fen- nel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas • Salsify* • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Winter Squash • Sunchokes • Sweet Potatoes • Turnips
Fish: Abalone • Cazebon • Crab, Dungeness • Crab, Rock • Flounder, Starry • Grenadier, Pacific • Herring • Lingcod • Rock Cod, aka Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Sanddabs, Pacific • Sardines, Pacific • Sole, Dover, Petrale and Rex • Spot Prawns
* December only ** February only
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. See montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx for more information.