An affection for Orange groves
Oranges, satsumas. One story has it the city of Orange was named for them.
A hand full of farmers here still grow the sweet tangerines. They may not make a lot of money selling their goods – but enjoy the nursing, pruning and tasting.
Orchard owners Charles Wilcox, 85; and John Heard, 72; both Dupont retirees, say oranges are making a small resurgence here.
“It may just be a couple of trees in their yards, but people are beginning to get back to growing oranges,” says Wilcox.
“In the ‘30s, many people had small orchards here. They would sell the oranges to make money during the Depression. When hard freezes killed the fruit, most didn’t want to replant and started selling something else.”
Wilcox owes his orchard to a freeze from Christmas, 1989.
“Everything went, all the crops. I was selling orange trees at the time, and nobody would buy one because they’d lost all their oranges in the freeze. So I figured I’d better plant the trees – then maybe I could just sell the oranges.”
Satsumas grow all year long but only bear one crop per year, usually around the first of November, he says. The reason they’re so juicy here is because they “need a little cold weather. That’s why they can grow good ones in the Florida panhandle, but not further south.”
He advises hobbyists to keep the trees watered and watch out for pests.
“Fire ants will kill a tree right quick,” says Wilcox, who often sells satsumas at swap meets in Winnie and Vidor.
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Heard sells his at the Orange Farmer’s Market. He grows Washington naval oranges, Ruby Red grapefruits, kumquats and lemons. And satsumas.
“All my fruit is coming off ripe right now,” he says. “Some people say ‘ripe’ and others say ‘mature.’ Whatever the right word is – we still pick them.”
Heard also raises a kind of lemon called “kerji.”
“It’s a good little salad lemon. The drawback is that it has two big old fat seeds. I don’t sell a lot of them because people have never seen one before.”
Heard likes the “fun and joy of growing,” he says.
“I’m an ex-rice farmer. I love to work in the soil and get dirt in my fingernails. I was raised up on it. I don’t see much income – but I love it.”
He watches the weather so he can protect his trees from cold.
“Sometimes I cover the bottoms with lots of newspaper, and when it really gets cold I’ll cover a whole tree with bedsheets.”
These days Heard is busy, he says, getting “the trash” out of his orchard. In 2005, Hurricane Rita blew acorns all over the grove.
“So now if I don’t watch it, I’ll have oak trees everywhere. They take up all your fertilizer and can be just as bad as weeds.”
So, will we have a hard winter? the farmer is asked.
“Well you know what they say. If you try to predict the weather in Orange County, you’re either a newcomer or a fool. I’m not knocking the meteorologists, but anything can happen. We could have three feet of snow or it could be just like it is today.”