Back in 1885, a canny real estate promoter convinced a group of weary Scots they could enjoy a life of ease by growing citrus in the paradise that was Sarasota. They arrived to find a wilderness in the grips of one of the coldest winters on record. Most of them fled after a few months, but the lure of delicious fruit growing just for the plucking continued to coax newcomers here for generations to come. Englewood marketed itself as the land of lemon groves, and South Gate developers promised, "You can live among the orange blossoms." Indeed, says Jeff LaHurd at the Sarasota History Center, many of Sarasota’s streets were named after fruit—Orange, Lime, Cocoanut, Lemon—as a "way to sell real estate."
Just a few decades ago, most Northern arrivals considered fruit trees in their back yard an essential part of their sunny new Sarasota lifestyle. That’s not so true anymore. Maybe it’s the year-round availability of every kind of produce in today’s grocery stores; maybe it’s our busy modern lives. For whatever reason, you don’t see many upscale landscapes designed with fruit trees these days, and people who do have backyard trees often seem to regard them as a messy nuisance.
If you ask me, that’s a shame. One of my favorite things about living in Sarasota is our little yard, which we’ve crammed with fruit trees—orange, Meyer lemon, Key lime, calamondin, papaya, grapefruit, carambola and coconut. I love every part of the growing process, from watching the delicate white flowers unfurl to expose a minute stalk capped with a tiny green ball to dashing outside to pick juicy limes for a fresh mojito.
Our biggest producer and crowning glory is our mango tree. We bought it 12 years ago from Charlie Crowley at Crowley’s Nursery in Myakka City. "Get a Carrie," he told us. "The tree doesn’t get so huge it will be a problem for you, and it’s the best-eating fruit on the planet." The tree was six feet tall when we planted it. Today, it’s about 20 feet high, and so wide that in the summer, you need to duck as you approach the front door or you’ll get bonked in the head by mangos. Charlie was right about the fruit. A Carrie mango is luscious, sweet and a little spicy, and smooth-fleshed without the fibrous texture so many mangoes have. They’re beautiful, too, ripening in late July to a warm golden color, soft and fuzzy to the touch.
Last year we harvested 273—yes, we counted—and we battled with the squirrels for every one. I’d see a fat squirrel waddling away with a mango in its mouth, and yell, "Enemy alert!" and George would come roaring out of the house. Nothing fazed them, though; after a few weeks of gorging, they began taking just one bite out of every mango, then leaving it as a silent taunt beneath the tree. George finally foiled them by harvesting the entire top of the tree by leaning out of the upstairs bedroom window with a fruit picker.
As a native West Indian, George can wave a knife at a mango and it will fall into perfect slices. His job was to peel and cut, and mine was to freeze, preserve and cook. After the last mango came in, we celebrated with a "Mango Mania" dinner party with every dish featuring mangos from our tree. We started off with mango rum punch and cold mango soup and ended with broiled mango cheeks and ice cream over mango-upside-down cake. Maybe it was the rum punch, but our guests seemed as delighted with the evening as we were.
But growing your own fruit is not all sunshine and compliments, as I discovered when I bragged about the dinner to our contributing food and wine editor, Judi Gallagher. She promptly requested some of our mango chutney. We had eaten it all, so I presented her instead with my latest creation: a jar of preserved Meyer lemons. A few weeks later, she called. "I so appreciate the preserves," she said, "but…mmm…the lid started swelling up and we were afraid to eat them." Mortified at the thought that I had almost poisoned Sarasota’s beloved Chef Judi with botulism, I threw out the rest of the preserves and went back to the Internet to study canning safety.
See? Food, beauty, nature, life, drama and mortal danger—it’s all right there in your own Sarasota back yard. Plant a fruit tree this year and you’ll see exactly what I mean.