Serious About Citrus
One man boasts a sweet collection.
Whatever you do, don’t ask Gene Lester his favorite variety of citrus. The 85-year-old—who can be at turns crusty and charming, and is still as sharp as a clementine is sweet—has been growing citrus trees for nearly half a century. His 12-acre farm in the hills above Watsonville, California, which includes some 250 varieties, is the largest known private collection of the fruits in the United States, according to the Monterey Bay chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Inc. But Gene says he doesn’t like to use the word “favorite” when referring to his citrus varieties because “it’s like saying who your favorite child is.”
Still, he will talk up his preferred species, the mandarin orange, which includes clementines and tangerines. “I guess I have about 50 varieties of mandarins and mandarin hybrids, and they’re all different; they all taste different,” Gene says. “So those would be on the top of my list.
“Oranges are another matter,” he says. “I don't generally grow oranges because I have limited space and energy to put into growing them, so why would I spend the time growing oranges when I can go down to the store and I can buy a bag of them for a dollar?”
Gene is not by heritage or schooling an orchardist. He grew up about
8 miles from downtown Los Angeles, in Alhambra, California, later studying mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles. For nearly 34 years he worked in software development management for IBM, his career taking him from Stockholm, Sweden, to Florida, and then back to California. It wasn’t until he moved to San Jose in 1974 that he began his citrus collection, moving it to his current orchard in Watsonville in the mid-1980s.
“I’m just a natural collector,” Gene says. “I collect a lot of things. I collect stamps and antique cars. I collect books. I collect computers. My parents were collectors, and that’s a natural inclination that I have. If I see one and there’s more around to make a set, I tend to think I need to collect that set. It’s an obsession.”
Gene grows more than citrus. At one time he also tended 500 varieties of apple trees, although he’s let most of them go, calling it “too much work.” There are also a few pear, nectarine, apricot and plum trees in his orchard, alongside his roughly 300 citrus trees. He doesn’t grow peaches, fearing peach leaf curl disease, which is prevalent in the region. Gene does grow grapefruit and pomelos, although cool nights in his area cause the rinds to thicken and maturation to slow. He’s a fan of Meyer lemons as well. “They are everbearing,” he says. “There’s always something on the plant. They’re very juicy; they have a unique flavor and aroma, and they make wonderful pies.”
Rather than sell his citrus—a tough proposition when he only has one or two trees of each variety, not enough for commercial distribution—Gene gives it away to friends and during the tours he hosts for organizations like the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG). He supplies Manresa, a restaurant in nearby Los Gatos with a coveted three-star Michelin Guide rating, with fruit for its annual citrus themed dinner. Asked if he attends, Gene replies with good-natured bluster. “Attend? I’m the guest of honor!”
Although he takes a surprisingly hands-off approach to his orchard— neither amending his clay soil nor using much fertilizer—he does require help from time to time, particularly since Parkinson’s disease has begun to make it difficult for him to get around.
Volunteers from CRFG pitch in with chores such as cutting back deadwood, which has increased because of the state’s multiyear drought, and laying down wood chips to help retain moisture, deter weeds and keep tree roots cool. They’ve also recently helped install an overhead watering system, replacing the irrigation emitters that Gene says had been bedeviling him by clogging.
Gene may no longer work the land as he once did, but his love for it remains unchanged. “From my perch here above Monterey Bay,” he says, “I can see probably a thousand square miles. I can see all the way to the curvature of the Earth. You know, I got a bonus that I didn’t know about when I bought this property. It’s on a ridge, at about 800 feet, and the heat from down below flows up this way. It creates a very small area that we call the Banana Belt. You can grow unusual things here. I grow avocados; my neighbor has macadamia nuts. It’s really a unique location, and I wish I could say I had discovered all that ahead of time and planned it, but it was really just serendipity.”
“If I see one and there’s more around to make a set, I tend to think I need to collect that set.”
These mandarins are just one of about 250 varieties of citrus Gene Lester has amassed in his California grove—a living museum of sweet and tart.