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That’s a hill of a lot of fruit

Tony Stewart has a passion for growing fruit

Posted: March 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Fruits grown in Tony Stewart’s garden, pomelo, ruby red grapefruit, oro blanco grapefruit, Valencia navel orange, cara cara navel orange, blood orange, tangelo, Meyer lemon, Bearss lime, three types of Mandarin orange, Mexican lime, limequat, cumquat and a Kishu mini Mandarin.

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The Stewart family — Tony, his wife Monica, and their two daughters, Jamie and Ronnie — has lived in the Old Orchard II development in Valencia since 1991.

Very “plugged into” the neighborhood socially, through swim teams, HOA participation and friendships, the Stewarts may also be considered the development’s “fruitiest” family.

That’s because Tony Stewart has turned his backyard hillside slope into a magnificent terraced garden featuring vegetables and 49 varieties of fruit trees.

While the vegetables (such as a huge kale plant that is growing stalks like octopus arms) are impressive, the fruit trees are really
Tony’s passion.

“We’re bringing the ‘orchard’ back to Old Orchard,” he quipped.

Creating the space

Stewart and his wife both come from gardening families, and they have always enjoyed the activity, but their hillside orchard really took off when the terraces were installed in 2010.

Along with that, Stewart put in an underground drip irrigation system that he says is incredibly efficient and maintenance-free. In fact, he said the family can go away for weeks at a time and the orchard does fine without any care necessary.

With a deck on the hillside and nice shade at certain times of the day, Stewart said his backyard is a wonderful place to walk through or just lounge around in. And it provides many hours of quiet togetherness for the family and a great place to entertain their many friends, who always go home with produce of some kind.

“Anybody that comes here goes away with something,” he said. He added that everything his family grows is eaten. Nothing is wasted.

For the love of fruit

Justly proud of his orchard, Stewart had a display of his produce set out for me when I visited him on Thursday.

A long row of different varieties of citrus fruits was quite impressive. This included, from largest to smallest: a pomelo, ruby red grapefruit, oro blanco grapefruit, Valencia navel orange, cara cara navel orange, blood orange, tangelo, Meyer lemon, Bearss lime, three types of Mandarin orange, Mexican lime, limequat, cumquat and a Kishu mini Mandarin.

Along with that he presented a plate of slices of several of these fruits, as well as a small plate of pomegranate seeds and sliced guava. And I took home a jar of homemade jam. “My wife did 200 jars of apricot jam and 150 jars of pluot (plum/apricot) jam,” he said.

I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed sampling Stewart’s abundance. And, while I am not usually a grapefruit fan, his varieties were so sweet and free of bitterness that if I had them around much I could easily become a grapefruit “hugger.” My favorite fruit of all, however, was the tiny Kishu Mandarin. This was like eating juicy candy.

Stewart said his fruits and vegetables are an integral part of his family’s diet these days, and everyone enjoys them so much that less healthy options, such as soda, have fallen by the wayside. And his wife’s creations are quite popular with neighbors and friends.

Her homemade salad dressing of equal parts Meyer lemon juice and light olive oil, with one clove of garlic and a couple pinches of salt, is one example.

“It healthy, cheap, and our friends ask for it,” Stewart said.

Gardening

Stewart said many of his neighbors and friends are gardeners themselves, and everyone shares tips and helps each other.

“I think the gardening community is very open to sharing,” he said.

Along with that, Stewart is a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, Los Angeles Chapter, where he is always learning new things. “This Saturday, I will be attending an avocado seminar,” he said.

Stewart praised two nurseries where he gets his plants and trees, along with great advice. First, locally, he highly recommends Green Thumb International in Newhall. “They want you to succeed and they sell the plants that do well in our area,” he said.

Additionally, he recommends Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills. “They carry exotic fruit trees that will thrive and do well here,” he noted.

As an example of this, Stewart has two cherry trees in his yard, planted near each other so they can cross-pollinate. They are of a variety of cherry that only needs 200 hours of “chilling” to produce abundant fruit. This is unlike other varieties of cherry trees that require many more hours of chilling.

Crafting and grafting

One thing that enables Stewart to have so many varieties of fruit in such a small space is grafting. Many of his fruit trees have grafted branches on them, each bearing its own type of fruit.

“I have trees with five different types of fruit on them,” he said.

He pointed out a peach branch grafted onto a nectaplum (plum/nectarine) tree, a pomegranate tree with six different types of
pomegranate fruit on it, and a citrus tree featuring limes, two varieties of Valencia oranges, tangelos and Mandarins.

“With grafted trees, you can get fruit over extended periods of time, as different varieties produce at different times,” Stewart said.

And he added that there is something available in his orchard to eat 365 days a year.

Stewart said every fruit tree you buy has been grafted. “If you grow it from a seed, you don’t get an exact representation of the fruit. Grafts are like cloning,” he said. And he gave the example that, “Every Hass avocado in the world came from one tree, through grafts.”

He said that grafting is a 50/50 proposition, in that many of them don’t take. But the good thing is you can always trim off the graft and put in another a bit farther down the branch.

“I would love to do more grafting and teach others about the art of grafting,” he said.

In the Orchard

Tony Stewart said he plans to stay in his home for a long time, exploring new and better ways to grow fruit and sharing his creations with his family and friends. He figures one day he will have grandchildren, and hopes his yard will be the kind of place they will love while he teaches them all about gardening.

“It’s the hobby you can never get tired of,” he said.

jwalker@the-signal.com

661-287-5524

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