Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Digging into citrus cultivation

Citrus from my yard, before
citrus greening moved in.
History filters down to us in a funnel. A wide world of people and events trickles through comparatively few sources. Sometimes forgotten is just how many diverse practices and opinions existed, even about something as seemingly homogenous as citrus cultivation.

Correspondence by a 19th century writer named Mrs. Leora B. Robinson of Orlando dispels any notion of past practices being narrowly defined. She comes across as plain-speaking and straightforward in the concise guidebook she wrote for Florida newcomers in 1884.  Living in Florida consists of letters Leora wrote for a Kentucky publication, Home and Farm, in response to readers' questions. And they had questions aplenty, particularly about the gold rush so peculiar to the Sunshine State: orange fever.

Everybody wanted to get rich quickly with
an orange grove. This one belonged to
Count Frederick deBary. Credit:
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Readers wanted exactitude: how much to spend, what kind of land to buy, what rootstock to use, how many years until a profit would surface. Leora pushed back. It all depends, she said, on whether a homesteader worked the land or hired a manager, and on numerous other variables. "Before I begin estimating the cost of an orange grove I would call attention to the fact that the methods of cultivation and procedure are almost as numerous as the owners of the grove..."  she wrote. Among the citrus theories floating around Florida in the 1880s are the following, which she itemized:

  • Orange trees do best on low ground.
  • Orange trees die on low ground.
  • Land that is too high is as bad as land that is too low.
  • Don't use budded trees; always used seedlings.
  • Never use seedlings.
  • Don't transplant nursery-grown budded trees into your grove.
  • Do transplant nursery-grown budded trees.
  • Shaddock is the best rootstock.
  • Sweet orange is the best rootstock.
  • Grapefruit is the best rootstock.
  • Lemon is the best rootstock.
  • Don't plow the grove.
  • The more the grove is plowed, the better.
  • Don't plow in summer.
  • Only plow in summer.
  • Plant trees densely - no more than 15 feet apart.
  • Plant trees 20-, 30-, even 40-feet apart.
Leora overflowed with practical common sense, some of it derived from the groves she managed for others. One of her takeaways from the conflicting advice was this: "You can hardly make a mistake." And if one did? There were other ways to make a living in pioneer Florida. She suggested the homesteader "...  plant arrow-root, raise melons, split rails at $1 per hundred, build cabins for your neighbors at $1.50 per day, raise chickens, catch fish and eat them, make fertilizers, shoot alligators on Lake Kissimmee and sell their hides .." For a person willing work, Florida was a paradise in more ways than one.

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