Grafting master Joe Real is growing some pretty strange fruit in Yolo County
In the beginning, there was an apple tree in the garden, and it bore fruit, and it was good.
But this humble apple was just the first fruit tree of dozens that Joe Real would introduce to the initially barren backyard of his and his family’s brand-new home in Davis 10 years ago. Today, in the modest 750-square-foot orchard behind the house, Real harvests more than 575 cultivars from just 40 trees.
Do the math: That’s more than 14 distinct varieties of fruit per tree.
Real, a UC Davis graduate and doctor of ecology, is a grafting master, to say the least. He is a renowned figure among the California Rare Fruit Growers, of which he is a member. Although Guinness apparently doesn’t award world records for “most grafts per tree,” if they did, Real would undoubtedly be in the running. The crowning jewel of this bizarre garden is a single 14-foot-tall citrus tree that bears a staggering 101 cultivars.
From the beginning, his approach was methodical, for Real specifically aspired to one day have ripe fruit every single day of the year. Just weeks after moving in a decade ago, he fortified the soil with an organic blend of coconut shavings, sand and charcoal and began planting fruit trees with almost wild abandon. He put in a cherry, a plum, a peach, a citrange and, eventually, nearly three dozen other trees.
Growing fruit year-round posed significant challenges in Northern California. The summer and fall were easy—cherries for May and June, basic stone fruits through August, and persimmons into January.
Filling in the months of deep winter and spring required oddity fruits, especially citrus. Eventually, Real ran out of ground space in his small orchard and planting more trees was not possible. So he began to graft, and he’s been at it ever since. He now has fresh fruit year-round, but the project continues. Real has elevated grafting into an art form.
His modified trees are fantastic monuments to the potentials of science. Until a windstorm this fall dashed the tree to pieces, Real had a 53-in-one persimmon. His cherry tree is a 20-in-one. His Prunus rootstock bears 50 plums and prunes. With his peaches, Real concedes, “I got lazy.” The tree produces 10 types of peaches, five nectarines and an almond. His avocado tree now bears seven cultivars, including Bacon, Hass, Mexicola and Mexicola Grande. Most recently, Real fitted the enduring tree with a branch of Daily 11, a variety whose fruits can weigh 11 pounds.
Then there’s that amazing 14-foot-tall citrus tree with its astounding 101 cultivars. From marble-sized calamondins to 5-pound mellow gold pomelos, the fruits constitute 24 species in the genus Citrus, with one or more ripe at all seasons of the year. The tree bears such rarities as sunquats, lemonquats, mandarinquats, trifoliates, citrons, yuzu and sudachi. Real’s favorite fruit on the tree is the Yosemite Gold mandarin hybrid. The calamondin is another favorite, which is used like a lemon in Real’s native Philippines. It also makes a good wine, and of the 100 gallons of homegrown fruit wine that Real produces every year, he ranks the calamondin No. 1.
Banana plants also grow in the yard and produce about 20 pounds of fruit each year. Real initially went the easy route, growing the tropical plants indoors under specialized horticultural bulbs. The first month’s electric bill proved more than his wife would tolerate, so he transferred the plants to the yard.
To isolate cultivars that would not only survive the Davis winters but produce fruit, too, Real let Darwinian forces do their work. Of 84 different varieties, more than half died of the cold that winter, but those that remained had been naturally selected for survival in Yolo County. Of these, 24 cultivars showed particular promise, and six—including California gold, dwarf Brazilian, dwarf Orinoco and Raja Puri—now produce bananas each fall. The praying hands, the ice cream, the golden rhino horn and the monkey fingers bananas, among others, have also done well, says Real, who has sampled roughly 185 of the world’s 1,000-plus banana types. The common market staple is the Cavendish, while the Philippine señorita, a banana not suited to local cultivation, is Real’s favorite of all.
Real works freelance as an agricultural and horticultural consultant and, among other creations, he has patented a predictive crop-yield modeling program. He recently bought a second home in Woodland. The yard is planted with that curse of the American garden—ornamentals—and Real assures their days are numbered.
Meanwhile, he still has horticultural and epicurean goals yet unaccomplished. Among them, he keeps meaning to plant a fig tree. He also hopes to eventually make a wine from each of 500 different fruits. He is now at 250. Finally, Joe Real hopes to taste every banana on Earth, and the Central Valley, for all its virtues, can’t help with that one.