May 5, 1973 found us huddled by the glow of the Majik Automatic woodburner as the last frost of the season melted into our prematurely planted garden here in the hollows of Tennessee. At that moment we decided we enjoyed warmth too much to shiver through another rainy winter in our poorly insulated clapboard house.
Gradually things started to fall into place. We wrote the absentee owners of the Patron Angel Organic Citrus Grove, a 15-acre spread where we had purchased delicious fruit on previous Florida jaunts. After several weeks of waiting for a reply, we finally gave up our attachment to receiving one ... and at last got an answer. If we were willing to tend and work the grove organically, the letter said, we could live among the trees and share the income from the sale of produce!
That was a fine message to receive in the heat of summer, when anyone in his right mind would rather go swimming than cut ten cords of firewood and can numerous jars of tomatoes in preparation for the barren, cold winter months ahead. Even so—though our heads became more HERE and NOW in some respects as a result of our commitment—we sometimes found ourselves worrying a bit when we reflected that we knew nothing about citrus except for eating such fruit.
By late October we were ready to depart, with bicycles strapped to the front of our white van and dogs, cats, plants and us crammed inside. We crept out of the hollows on a wet, chilly morning that hung with us until a bright sun roused us from a roadside rest the next day. Spanish moss and sunshine—guarantees that your toes will soon thaw—are always cheerful landmarks as you approach the Florida State line.
On to the citrus grove, which we found overgrown and essentially untended since its sale a year and a half before our arrival. Because most of the fruit had not been picked the year before but had been left to drop and rot, the trees didn't have the quantity of new citrus we'd hoped for. Still, what was there was gratifying. We even found some Valencias hanging around from the previous season.
Once we had the grove mowed, we set about trying to build some sort of living structure which seemed compatible with our environment. We'd seen the Seminoles' "chickees" but thought the openness of such a dwelling might encourage too many rapacious mosquitoes. And we decided against a tipi—the previous caretakers' solution—because we thought it would be too confining.
Eventually we settled on a ramada-type structure and set about scrounging materials. We purchased a bolt of salvaged yellow canvas for $15.00, a roll of 4' X 100' aluminum screening for $26.00, a roll of tar paper and a bucket of tar for about $10.00, a box of staples for $2.00 and about $10.00 worth of rope and cord. A friendly neighbor let us cut as much bamboo as we needed, and the surrounding jungle provided ample palm fronds. The tipi dwellers had left the remnants of their oval plywood floor, to which we added an extension.
With our housing materials in hand, we dug 12 holes and sunk bamboo posts four inches in diameter in a somewhat evenly spaced oval, 12' X 18' at its widest and longest points. Then came the elevating (to prevent flooding) and placement of the floor, using a multitude of board ends, 2 X 4's, and occasionally pieces of brick to produce a patchwork semblance of a level platform.
The roof proved more complicated, but finally came together. We notched the tops of the bamboo posts, ran boards or more bamboo between them and then crisscrossed the whole with bamboo rafters, leaving an overhang of about two feet. We then wove hundreds of palm fronds together to form a covering which deterred the first rain for at least 30 seconds. Later we realized that we had failed to provide enough pitch to the roof and added a layer of scavenged plastic sheeting and one of tar paper held together with tar ... all of it covered with more palm fronds. This effort was lashed down with rope straps to keep it from blowing away in strong winds.
The rest was easy, a matter of stapling up the screening and hanging lengths of canvas which could be raised or lowered according to the weather. Since the screen was only four feet high, we had to use a double width and hand stitch the overlap together.
We lived in this ramada for over five months and found it comfortable in all but freezing weather. The openness and the overhanging palm frond roof kept our house cool and airy on extremely warm days, a welcome relief when we were feeling dragged out from working in the sun. When we moved out we were able to salvage all the canvas and screening and most of the rope, leaving behind only a pile of palm fronds and bamboo to compost into soil.
The screen kept most of the mosquitoes and "no-see-ums" outside our shelter. Another hazard was fire ants: fierce-biting critters which clean up dropped fruit and garbage and live in cavernous, sandhill abodes near practically every tree. To prevent them from carrying away our food, we elevated one storage box on bricks placed in aluminum pie tins that were kept filled with water. We also suspended a couple of boxes from the bamboo rafters, and one of these—which hung outside the walls—became a very effective sprouting container. The garbage can which held our pets' dog food was placed on bricks in a shallow dug-out area lined with plastic and moated with water. The dog/cat feeding bowl rested in an old hubcap, also waterfilled and effective unless the animals drank the liquid. After these precautions, fire ants were an indoor problem only when we didn't pay enough attention to cleaning up after meals. Outdoors, they were a menace whenever we innocently walked across one of their hidden havens.
The grove itself was a joy in which to live and work. It's a real stoner to wake up in the morning with the sun sparkling on the dew which drips from the smiling oranges a few feet from your head. We planted a bountiful garden without any need to consider canning and storing for the future. Our caretaking labors consisted of mowing, hoeing, manuring, watering, pruning, picking, and selling the citrus from 1,540 grapefruit, orange, and tangelo trees. It was a never-ending job—one that really requires a year-round caretaker—but we did the best we could with the horrendous equipment available. Somehow, we still had ample opportunity to visit beaches, friends, relatives, and various metropolitan distractions.
We feel that we left the grove in much healthier condition than we found it, and look forward to renewing our friendship with the trees next fall if the opportunity presents itself. Our only hassle was finding a market for organic citrus. The Florida Citrus Commission has strict laws that make it difficult for small or organic growers to ship more than 12 bushels out of the state at one time, and small-volume shipping prices are high. Although we didn't earn much from the sale of fruit, we ended up no worse off than we were when we arrived six months earlier. And we had warm feet and all the oranges we could eat the whole time.
Does life among the fruit trees sound attractive? There are many rundown, neglected groves throughout Florida, waiting for the developers to bulldoze them into condominiums and trailer parks. In the meantime, the owners would probably be happy to have folks give their land some love and attention in exchange for living and gardening space.