Modesto gardener makes exotic plants, fruit thrive in his back yard

jholland@modbee.comSeptember 1, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
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    Email: jholland@modbee.com

— Jeff Earl has taken the local food movement to a new place.

He grows bananas, pineapples, coffee berries and other tropical fruit in the back yard of his Modesto home.

He has done it for nearly 20 years, using shade and other techniques to turn a temperate-zone city lot into a little piece of the tropics.

"This looks like the average Hawaiian back yard," Earl said during a tour last week. "I like the 'wow' factor of people coming here and seeing my coffee and bananas."

Earl, 53, has been a custodian at Modesto Junior College for most of the past 34 years. The tropical fruit thing comes from his college days in Hawaii, when he was amazed at what grew around him.

His first attempt in Modesto was coconuts, which failed. Trial and error followed with other plants, some of them from seed, some from cuttings he ordered online.

Today, the home in the area of Standiford Avenue and Prescott Road teems with Earl's successes. He grows breadfruit, papayas, guavas, macadamia nuts, lychees and numerous other plants.

The banana plants have the telltale huge leaves and fruit just waiting to be picked by the bunch. They do not ripen on the tree — unlike our large expanses of peaches, cherries and other temperate-zone fruit — so Earl puts them in a bag with an apple, which releases ethylene gas to speed the process.

The miracle tree from east Africa does something special. If you eat the fruit, then suck a lemon, the lemon will taste sweet.

Some of the plants grow in full sun, some under a plastic awning, and some in the deep shade along the north side of the house, mimicking a cloudy day in the tropics. Most are in containers, but only two of them — the coffee and breadfruit trees — come inside in the dead of winter.

Earl adjusts the watering and fertilizer to help the plants survive Modesto's winter chill and to provide the acidic soil that some of them need.

He grafted a tropical papaya cutting onto a mountain papaya rootstock to come up with a plant that fits the conditions here.

As for the harvested fruit, he said, "I eat them or I give them away." The recipients include his wife, Tina, and daughter, Kirsten. His son, Jeff Jr., lives in Alaska.

Earl started the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association in 2001. It is now chaired by David Johnson of Waterford, who mainly grows unusual varieties of stone fruit, grapes and other temperate crops.

"It's a challenge because you're working on the fringe of things," Johnson said.

Earl spends only about 15 minutes tending to his plants on most days. He said he might expand onto a larger site after retiring from MJC.

For now, he enjoys the fruits of his labor, thinking of ways to put them to use.

"Everyone says we have to taste Modesto-grown coffee," he said. "I was thinking along the lines of roasting them and making chocolate-covered beans."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.


GARDENING TIPS

Jeff Earl offered these tips on growing tropical fruit in a Modesto Bee story in 2002, seven years into his endeavor:

• Plant hardy varieties that can withstand slightly cooler temperatures.

• Place cold-fragile plants where they are protected from the elements. Use hardier, tall plants to help shelter smaller ones. Planting near a wall or fence can help plants and trees better withstand cold.

• Fertilize and water according to the specific needs of the plant. Detailed information is at www.crfg.org, the web site of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association.

Earl welcomes e-mail inquiries at valleytropic@gmail.com.

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