Eagle Rock residents rooted in simple pleasures by their fruit trees

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Pomegranates in Evalour Dioquino and Kel Pajatin’s front yard on Yosemite Drive in Los Angeles. Oct. 31, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Walking through the residential streets of Eagle Rock, you might notice the occasional fruit-bearing tree reaching over a fence or a half-eaten piece of fruit laying on the sidewalk from an animal’s unfinished meal. From pomegranates to persimmons, Eagle Rock residents grow many different varieties of fruit trees in their yards. For some, the trees provide just enough for an occasional snack, while others harvest more than they can eat and find creative ways to share or use the excess. Underneath the rocky soil their residences are built on, a network of roots from the fruit trees connects these neighbors in both tangible and intangible ways.

Dianna Jaynes, an Eagle Rock resident of about 18 years, said she has kumquats, grapevines, figs, apples, persimmons and lemons in her backyard. She said the trees were already fully grown when she moved into the house with her family six years ago.

According to Jaynes, she only has to water the trees twice per year and occasionally fertilize them. She said the caretaking process does not require a lot of effort. Even when her apple tree had a recent infestation of aphids, Jayne said she just had to go to Armstrong Garden Centers, a garden supply store in Glendale, and purchase an aphid treatment to fix the problem.

Jaynes said her childhood home had a lot of stone fruit trees and that she feels really fortunate to have fruit trees as an adult too.

“We’ve definitely lived places where we didn’t have any,” Jaynes said. “It’s definitely a huge bonus to where we live now.”

Evalour Dioquino said she moved into her son’s rental home in Eagle Rock two years ago. Her son, Kel Pajatin, has lived there for about four years and is grateful his mom can take care of the fruit trees since he is not able to due to his work schedule. On the property, there are lemon, orange, apple, pomegranate and hybrid tangerine-lemon trees. Dioquino said she estimates that some of the trees are around 25 years old.

Growing up in the Philippines, Dioquino said she had a big yard with many fruit trees, such as mangos, avocados, oranges and six different varieties of bananas. Her favorite fruit growing up was pineapple and so she never tried pomegranates. When she moved in with Pajatin, she said she ate her first pomegranate from the trees in their yard.

“I tried it and I said, ‘Oh, that’s good,’” Dioquino said. “They’re juicy.”

Dioquino said she used to teach agriculture classes and help elderly people landscape their yards. She said she has always had a love for growing plants, since her mom used to grow begonias and orchids and Dioquino herself used to breed tomatoes. When she first moved in with Pajatin, she started pruning and watering the trees and continues to spend up to two hours per day tending them. According to Dioquino, the yard is infested with insects, but she does not want to spray insecticides. Instead, she said she has planted lemongrass to try and mitigate the problem. Birds also peck at the pomegranates, according to Dioquino, and her and Pajatin’s two dogs sometimes play with fruits that have fallen on the ground.

Both Dioquino and Pajatin said they do not want to sell the extra fruit the trees produce because their landlords actually own the property and the trees. They said they do give away some of the excess to neighbors and friends.

“If [neighbors] come, I respond to them,” Dioquino said. “Some of the ladies who came had a shopping bag and said, ‘Can I have some of your oranges?’ I said, ‘How many do you want?’”

Pomegranates in Evalour Dioquino and Kel Pajatin’s front yard on Yosemite Drive in Los Angeles. Oct. 31, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

According to Dioquino, some people just take the fruit without asking as they walk past. She said she found out local high school students were stealing fruit because a neighbor told her the students would drop any unripe fruit they had picked in front of the school building.

“I caught one. ‘If you get something that’s not yours, that’s stealing,’ I said. ‘I’m not mad, but it’s not ready yet, so don’t do it,’ I said. So, he gave it back to me. I never have seen him again,” Dioquino said. “They’re kind of excited or curious.”

Mila Inukai, an Eagle Rock resident, said that since she was born in Moscow and raised in Paris, she always considered herself a city person. When she moved to her current house over three years ago with her family, the backyard looked like it had been neglected and was infested with insects and rats. She wanted to make the yard nicer because it was the first house she had ever owned, as opposed to renting. At the same time, Inukai had watched a documentary called “The Fruit Hunters,” which inspired her to plant fruit trees. Inukai said she now has 47 trees, including pink guavajackfruit, banana, longanlycheeCalifornia cherrytiger figloquatolive koroneiki and super-dwarf peach trees.

“I’m friends with a couple of nurseries in the area,” Inukai said.

According to Inukai, she took classes at Armstrong Garden Center to learn how to care for the trees. She also said she got tips from her neighbors. When she started having problems with animals eating the fruit, her neighbor told her to wrap the fruit in dark-colored material because they identify the fruit by sight.

Inukai said that because her property is on a hill and the soil does not hold water well, she had to build brims around the trees to keep the water from instantly washing away. Since the trees have become more established, Inukai said she has noticed fewer mudslides on her property. She said she also has to fertilize the plants about three times per year.

“Because of the massive amount of growth, now I have to go to Home Depot and have to use the truck to get all the bags of fertilizer,” Inukai said. “Spring is most intense, I will go [work in the garden] sometimes two or three hours a day. Plus — I won’t lie — it’s good exercise. You’re outside getting vitamin D, so I don’t complain.”

Inukai said she planted the first trees in Fall 2016 and had her first harvest the following spring.

“It was very touching and everybody tried them,” Inukai said. “Even though there were only five apples, so I had to cut it.”

Now, Inukai said some of the trees are producing over 20 fruits per season. She said her husband recently got into jam making, and she gave some oranges to her friend last year for soap making. According to Inukai, she is hesitant about selling any of the fruit.

“Have you ever had a pet?” Inukai said. “You would rather give it to a nice person for free, just to make sure they’re okay, rather than to sell to a stranger.”

Jaynes said she is always happy to share any extra fruit her family does not eat themselves. Many of her neighbors also have fruit trees, and they will sometimes put boxes of fruit in their front yards for people to take. The amount of fruit she is able to give away changes each year, since the yield of fruit can vary a lot for each tree.

“These last two years we’ve had like no figs,” Jaynes said. “The years previous, we had so many figs I was dropping figs off at people’s houses.”

North Hollywood-based nonprofit Food Forward helps residents in LA County collect and donate their excess fruit through their backyard harvesting program. Local residents have recommended Food Forward’s services in the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Facebook group (ERNG).

Jaynes said she might plant more fruit trees in the future since she enjoys having the current ones so much.

“It’s really fun to just go back there and grab a fig and not even wash it,” Jaynes said. “It’s just a pleasure, just a lovely part of life.”

Pomegranates in Evalour Dioquino and Kel Pajatin’s front yard on Yosemite Drive in Los Angeles. Oct. 31, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Gretchen North, Occidental biology professor, said botanically, the term “fruit” refers to any reproductive organ containing seeds in flowering plants. Using this definition, oak and other nut trees are technically considered fruit trees. According to North, indigenous people in Southern California traditionally ate acorns from the California live oak tree. In terms of the non-nut fruit trees many people typically think of, however, Southern California only has one truly native species: the Hollyleaf cherry tree.

North said she grows a Hollyleaf cherry tree in her yard because it is an evergreen tree that is drought-resistant and good for wildlife such as squirrels and birds. She said she also supports the planting of pomegranate trees since they do not need a lot of water. Citrus trees, according to North, were introduced to the region in the 1800s and are also evergreens. They require more water than pomegranates though, especially when first planted. North said citrus trees are also more susceptible to diseases and pests, which has had devastating effects in Florida.

Further east in Los Angeles, North said there is a greater diversity of fruit trees, including soursop and avocado trees. North said there can be both positive and negative consequences to growing fruit trees.

“In general, I like to encourage the growth of trees,” North said. “They have wonderful flowers — I mean, just beautiful flowers — that smell so good, and they’re good for butterflies and birds. I’d say the only downside is that if you really want perfect fruit and if you care about the actual size of your crop, you may be inclined to spray [with pesticides], which is just not a good idea.”

North said she also thinks it is important to maintain the ecological heritage of the region, so people should try to protect native trees like the California walnut, California live oak and California sycamore.

When Inukai and her family lived further north in LA, she said it was rare to see fruit trees in people’s yards. Now, in the urban environment just a few miles north of Downtown LA, in yards sometimes smaller than about 300 square feet, Inukai said she has seen an abundance of fruit.

“Once we moved here, where there are so many more Filipino residents and Mexican residents — it’s amazing what they do with their plants,” Inukai said. “It’s just absolutely inspiring.”

According to Inukai, she did not grow up with a love for the natural world. Now, she said she enjoys nurturing the plants and she and her son will even take the time to pollinate certain trees by hand.

“They’re a living thing, the trees, and they give you a sense of belonging,” Inukai said. “The more dependent they are on you, the more you feel touched.”

Inukai said that feeling is one she has never felt before.

“My grandmother, she was a botanist, so she would have all these plants and she would just teach me all the Latin names, and I just hated it,” Inukai said. “I was so detached from nature. It’s completely changed. I feel like finally it kicked in in me, that green thumb.”