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The Dry Garden: Abundant harvest? Donate it

December 10, 2010 |  8:00 am

Citrus-Dominic-VWe can't all be Virginia Paca, the gardener profiled on this blog in October who grows food and donates it to food banks. But this winter those of us with orange trees laden with fruit might take a page from the book of that Pasadenan. What more fitting holiday activity could there be than to glean our home orchards and donate fresh fruit to local pantries?

As winter closes in, that fruit very well may be oranges. It is pure serendipity that an activity that feeds people is also good for the orange trees.

Homeowners can figure out where to take harvests by going to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank's pantry locator. This column is about how best to pick and pack the fruit.

The citrus most likely to be hanging about in Southern California gardens include mandarins, early navels and late Valencias, said Mary Lu Arpaia, a UC Riverside Extension specialist. But she warns that color itself isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of ripeness.

Though navels and mandarins will probably be ready to pick, Valencias can fake out amateur orchardists. New fruit can turn orange with the onset of cool autumn weather, but it won't have achieved the delectable balance of sweetness and acidity until spring. When you find ripe Valencia oranges on a tree in December, they are last year's fruit. They will be utterly delicious and begging for harvest.

As it happens, it's good for the tree to remove these ultra-ripe oranges. Leaving old fruit on the tree saps energy that is best marshaled for next spring's bloom and successive crops.

Citrus-Madeleine

If you're not sure what kind of orange you have, judging the ripeness is easy. Taste them. "It comes down to a bottom line: If you like the flavor, it's ready to pick; if not, it's not," Arpaia said.

Citrus-boxed Although fallen fruit may be perfectly edible, do not donate it, she warned. "Do not treat donating fruit as a cleanup operation." One bad orange can cause an entire box to molder.

Yvonne Savio, coordinator of Los Angeles County's Master Gardener program, advises giving trees time to rebalance after rain. Fruit can become bloated and easily damaged when packing.

"It's always better to wait several days if not a week after it's rained," she said.

If the citrus does appear swollen, pack it lightly, perhaps no more than two layers high. Arpaia adds that stems should be clipped close to the fruit and the boxes should be clean.

Rain or no rain, Valencia oranges can make dribbly eating. You may want to label the boxes, "Sweet oranges / very runny / best for juicing."

As you pack, if there is any hint of sooty mold on otherwise good fruit, Arpaia recommends washing it with soap and water, then drying the oranges. "This will remove the natural wax, but if you're going to donate it right away, and it will be eaten soon, this shouldn't be a problem," she says. If the food needs to be stored, the interval should be brief -- hours or days, not weeks -- and the location should be cool, dry and dark.

Riverside master gardeners have a nice crib sheet on Southern California citrus. It's hard to top picking Christmas fruit as a joyous experience that not only makes us better people but also better gardeners.

-- Emily Green

Corrected: An earlier version of this post misspelled Mary Lu Arpaia's named as Arpala.

Photo, top: Dominic Conte picks oranges from a tree overdue for harvesting. Credit: Emily Green

Photo, middle: Dominic's sister, Madeleine, lends a hand in the effort. Credit: Emily Green

Photo, bottom: The day's haul -- stems clipped and skin dry -- is packed to prevent mold.

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