Orange County’s Legacy : Right in Your Own Back Yard


Talking about oranges in Orange County, in 1993, is sort of like delivering an anthropology lecture, or maybe a Sunday school lesson: “Once, great blossoming rows of trees heavy laden with Valencias and navels covered the earth, and the people did eat of them, and they were good ... “

But because the people turned out to be just as fruitful as the trees, and did multiply, a whiff of orange blossom has become as rare as an uncluttered morning commute in what was once one of the most citrus-intensive tracts of land in the world.

Disneyland, some will remember, was once a large orange grove. In fact, that parcel of land was about where the original Orange Curtain began, if you were driving east. A few miles of dairy farms, and suddenly everything turned green and orange clear to San Juan Capistrano.


The high-water mark for commercial orange production in the county occurred in 1948, when there were nearly 65,500 acres of orange groves here. Today, 93% of those trees are gone, replaced by housing and commercial development.

But for a relatively small number of residents, Orange County is still orange.

Through good fortune, design or a kind of botanical inheritance, these people have managed to keep orange trees producing in their own back yards. To them, the trees are symbols of both a better (albeit disappearing) life and of a kind of homey, even rural, hospitality.

Joan Crawford, 44, who lives on a corner lot in Orange--the city in which you’re most likely to find back-yard citrus fans--thinks of her single ancient navel orange tree as a kind of communal fruit stand. The fact that neighbor children often pluck fruit growing from the lower branches that hang over the back fence bothers her not at all. The tree produces plenty to go around.

Crawford’s house was built in 1904 and she thinks the tree was planted not long after. It yields, as do all navel trees, around late November and the fruit is sometimes even larger than the oranges Crawford sees at her local market.

“It’s a pretty hardy tree,” she said, “and I don’t really do anything special to it. I usually just water it when I water the lawn and it yields well every year. I’ve got this fruit picker on a stick to get the fruit on the top branches.”

To Crawford, the tree represents the California she grew up imagining.

“I’ve been here six years,” she said. “I grew up in Kansas and I always saw pictures of California with oranges in the foreground and snow-capped mountains in the background and I thought how nice that looked. Now it’s exciting to have something like that in my yard.”


Carla Ray, 32, also came to the orange tree tradition from afar. An American who grew up in The Hague, she can now see the trees simply by looking out of her kitchen window into the long, thin yard behind her house in one of Orange’s older, historic neighborhoods.

Ray and her husband, Greg, have lived in the house for only three years, but he lived daily with back-yard citrus trees at his parents’ home in Santa Monica when he was young. He retained the love of oranges particularly, she said, and planted a pair of Spanish blood orange trees in the yard, as well as a small ornamental orange tree. These trees join another navel tree, a lemon tree, a tangerine tree, and apricot and pomegranate trees.

“My feeling is that we have enough,” she said, “but my husband will always plant another orange tree. This yard is part of an old river bed, so the soil is fantastic and the trees really yield well. We pick a lot and give them to neighbors and we make juice. Also, we have somebody come in about once a year to do the pruning and they’ll take some of the excess fruit.

“And, oh, the smell of the blossoms is wonderful, as long as you can smell them before the kids pick them.”

Ernest Eckhoff is more pragmatic about oranges, but after a long career involved in growing them, he still maintains trees outside both his office and his home. Born in Orange about a block from the office that now contains his accounting business, Eckhoff, 75, purchased his first orange grove in 1937 after learning the business from his father, Fred, a pioneer grower in the region who started the family business in 1906.

While most growers in the county farmed between five and 10 acres of oranges, the Eckhoffs at the height of their business maintained about 100 acres, mostly Valencias. However, after World War II, three factors made it all butimpossible to maintain the kinds of profits to which the growers had been accustomed: the production of frozen concentrated orange juice in Florida, a root disease that attacked county orange trees in 1958, and land development.


The Eckhoffs slowly sold off their groves or offered the land for lease. Today, Ernest Eckhoff is content to tend a pair of cattle ranches in addition to his accounting business, and to do his citrus farming on a back-yard scale.

However, he has not given up the use of growing techniques that kept him in business so many years. Whether it’s the three trees in his back yard (a pair of navels and one Valencia) or the small grove (which also contains lemon, avocado and tangerine trees) adjacent to his office, Eckhoff makes sure the trees receive professional-grade care.

This means, he said, planting the trees in their own area, where they can be watered and fertilized independently of other plants. Watering, particularly, is vital, and Eckhoff uses a drip irrigation system that twines around the ground beneath his trees. He said he routinely leaves the drip system on for 24 hours once a week, but that different soil will require different amounts of water.

To check the proper saturation level, Eckhoff suggested the use of a device called an Irrometer (available at farm supply stores). “Even if a person only has one tree,” he said, “I’d suggest getting one, since water is so important for citrus.”

The Irrometer, he said, consists of a pipe inserted into the ground near the tree that measures water content in the ground. Precision, said Eckhoff, is important because it is just as possible to damage a tree by over-watering as by letting it dry up.

Fertilizing, he said, is fairly simple: a good mulch, an organic fertilizer such as blood meal in the fall, “and a shot of ammonium phosphate around January.”


Pests are not the problem for isolated trees that they are for concentrated groves, but snails can be a problem, said Eckhoff. They actually climb the trees and bore into the fruit. Any good commercial snail poison spread around the base of the trees will thwart them, he said.

Harvesting can be done by clipping the oranges at the stem or by simply pulling the fruit off the tree, said Eckhoff. However, the fruit will not remain fresh as long when the stem is detached from the fruit by pulling.

Finally, said Eckhoff, don’t expect consistency.

“Tree farming is different,” he said. “You can pull out all the stops and one year they just won’t raise a good crop. Other years, they’ll be big and beautiful. You just can’t tell.”

Walt Frick agrees. Frick, 88, was one of the early growers in the county and owned his first orange grove in 1926. He built a home two years later adjacent to his groves on Fairhaven Avenue in Orange, and still lives in it. His groves are gone--he now owns land that produces alfalfa and vegetables in El Centro--but he remains a back-yard citrus grower. He maintains a large Valencia that is “at least 70 years old,” a pair of navel trees that are more than 20 years old, a couple of 5-year-old Valencias, a pair of young dwarf Satsuma orange trees, a tangelo tree and a grapefruit tree.

Yes, said Frick, oranges can be temperamental. But last year he (and, by extension, his neighbors) got lucky and the navels came in big, providing him with weeks of eating fruit and the neighbors with welcome gifts.

“I’m still interested in growing things,” he said. “There’s something about it. I once had 17 acres of my own of beautiful trees. There’s a certain amount of pride in developing an orange grove, all of the trees the same size, all in good shape. That’s what you call success.”


Today, however, like a handful of other orange-loving Orange County residents who are living--at least in a small, personal way--part of the original California dream, Frick is content to tend a few trees and wait expectantly for the first fragrant blooms of the Valencias in the early spring, and the first juicy taste of the navels around Thanksgiving. The orange trees offer a sense of continuity, and a kind of sufficiency seldom found in the encroaching urban jungle.

“I just love to have all the trees,” said Frick. “With them, I have everything I need.”