The Dry Garden: An Altadena couple's 15-year quest to plant nearly an acre of unusual edibles
When musicians Kazi Pitelka and John Steinmetz tell friends that they are leaving their Altadena home of 15 years, the invariable responses are: “Why?” “Do you have to?” “Whyyyyy?”
It’s not that their friends are given to whining. It’s that few homes will ever be occupied so well. Theirs is a place where music was made, children were raised, a father died. Where mealtime meant family time and where Pitelka gardened, then cooked.
It stands to reason that a special place would have special people behind it. Pitelka is principal violist for LA Opera. Steinmetz is a composer and bassoonist. A sampling of their airspace, available online, is Steinmetz’s 2010 TEDx lesson about why some music is background and some demands our full attention. Half of the duo illustrating “foreground” music with Mozart's “Duo for Violin and Viola in G major” is Pitelka.
At about 3,600 square feet, her house is enormous, but the garden is enormous-er. The lot covers almost an acre and Pitelka has planted it with citrus, stone fruit, herbs, vegetables and roses.
If you’ve passed the expansive, roughly century-old Spanish home in spring or summer, you will have noticed it. This year the broad frontyard spills over with poppies. In past years Pitelka has covered it with towering Hickory King dent corn, which created such a spectacle that passing cars screeched to a stop for double takes. That corn was milled, then baked into biscuits.
Pitelka is an accomplished kitchen gardener, one recently featured in a Times' Food section piece on urban homesteading. So don’t read this when hungry, and don’t be intimidated if you are just starting out. The first thing that Pitelka did when envisioning an orchard for her home in the late 1990s was seek help by joining the California Rare Fruit Growers.
“I wanted local people to help me choose varieties,” she said. “They were incredible. The first meeting I attended, the president of the local chapter went around the room and had people tell me what their favorite fruit tree was in their own yard.”
She built up her soil with local stable compost and mulch, then slowly installed a garden that involves, at last count, 75 fruit trees. These include three avocado trees and a big old grapefruit tree that came with the place. The count doesn’t include specimens yanked because of disease, poor yield or lousy fruit. As her spring stone fruit orchard went from flower to fruit, I asked her to name for readers a selection of trees that performed particularly well.
“My favorite plum in the world is the Elephant Heart. I wouldn’t go without it,” she said, with the proviso that it has a high chill requirement and may not perform well along the coast. “I would also say the Red Baron peach because of the beauty and the flavor.”
Among apples, she was surprised that her favorite was the Fuji. “I was always resistant to standard supermarket varieties,” she said. But to her mind, it performed better than the Gordon, Winter White Permain, Beverly Hills, Anna and Ein Shemer. For persimmons, she loves the Giant Fuyu, though she warns the wood is weak and the tree needs to be pruned to relieve it of weight. For pomegranates, she commends the tried-and-tested Wonderful cultivar.
The first fruit that springs to mind when you ask her about citrus is the Page Tangerine (a.k.a. Page Mandarin). “It’s not something you see commonly, because it doesn’t peel very easily, but it’s absolutely my favorite,” she said, provided you leave room in the favorite category for Oroblanco grapefruit.
Among oranges, “I’m very happy with the Valencia and Washington navel, which come at different times.”
For those of you considering a mulberry tree, Pitelka has good words for two popular varieties, Pakistani and Persian. “When pushed into a corner, many will say the Persian mulberry is their favorite fruit,” she said. “The Pakistani is not quite as rich but grows to about 4 inches long, so it’s a real eye-catcher. I made syrup for Italian sodas out of my Pakistani mulberries.”
Usually homeowners are requested to leave while real estate agents hold open houses, but Pitelka’s agent asked her to stay and field questions from prospective buyers. This was smart. Many of us could recognize the many types of mint, thyme, oregano and rosemary in her herb garden, but Linnaeus himself might pause over the curry leaves, nepitella, yerba santa, bergamot, epazote, shiso and Vietnamese coriander.
Several weeks ago, Pitelka stood in her garden thronged by strangers. They asked about the breeds of chickens in the pen beneath two old avocado trees, the beehives in the orchard, the Israeli-designed drip system and how through near-yearly applications of stable and homemade compost she built up soil that is as soft as a couch.
They learned that the roses included Golden Celebration, Sally Holmes, Butterscotch, Hot Cocoa and Josephs Coat. The most intrepid on the tour slipped under the canopy of the vast old grapefruit tree, where a few may have noticed bells strung in the boughs.
Pitelka and Steinmetz are selling their home because they’ve got one child in college and another about to follow suit. Tuition ain’t cheap. There’s another garden in the future for them, she said. Her family will live with friends while they search for a place with good earth and the right exposure to Southern Californian sun.
Watching Pitelka during the open house was to be reminded that gardening is about discernment: what grows well, what doesn’t. What tastes good, what doesn’t. What’s beautiful, what’s diseased. Just then, however, she wasn’t assessing plants. She was scrutinizing the faces of prospective buyers looking for the gardener among them.
-- Emily Green
Photo credits: Emily Green / For The Times
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