A garden of fruit salad

Plums in Cyrus Gordon's yard, which are joined by limes, pears, kumquats, raspberries, grapes  and he doesn't even like fruit.
Plums in Cyrus Gordon's yard, which are joined by limes, pears, kumquats, raspberries, grapes and he doesn't even like fruit. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

Cyrus Gordon's patch of Ventnor is quite the orchard paradise and quite a feat in trying Shore conditions.

Posted: July 28, 2012

Let's just say it. The Jersey Shore has never been known for its imaginative gardens. But you can kind of understand why: It's the ocean, stupid.

Still, it gets pretty boring, those endless loops of hydrangeas and hedges, evergreens and petunias, and no one's more bored than Cyrus Gordon.

Yet he's dumbfounded every time someone stops to stare at his garden, which is nothing like your typical beach-town flower bed. Two weeks after 120 visitors came to see it on the Ventnor City Garden Tour, he still doesn't get why he was even included.

"It's all very confusing to me," Gordon insists.

Shouldn't be.

For the last 11 years, this hobbyist gardener has lived in the 6900 block of Atlantic Avenue, one block from the beach, in an eight-bedroom, six-bath house built by his great-grandfather in the early 1900s. He lives there with his fiancee, mother, daughter, and two grandchildren, who are the sixth generation to call the place home.

There's a second lot attached, and this is the focus of all the curiosity. It's a fruit garden!

Gordon, 54, has an oval island of lawn surrounded by so much fruit on trees, vines, and shrubs, in pots, whiskey barrels, and planters, you'd think you were in Florida or maybe Hawaii, where he actually lived for a good chunk of his life.

He's got plums (purple and greengage), apricots, peaches, cherries, apples, and figs; seven varieties of grapes, five each of blueberries and blackberries; raspberries and strawberries; Arctic kiwis, kumquats, limes, limequats (Key lime/kumquat), lemons, tangelos (tangerine/grapefruit) and mandarins, sweet 'Sugar Baby' watermelons, and nonfruiting banana trees - season's too short - that nonetheless make a striking ornamental statement.

"I think it's fun to grow fruit you can eat and I absolutely love it when my kids and grandkids and neighbors come over and get some," Gordon says.

"Mom and I love fruit, too," adds Gordon's fiancee, Joyce Leonard, a former elementary schoolteacher who just completed a dental assistant program. She's referring to Gordon's mother, Trisnowati Gordon, whose strategy is simple.

"Whenever I see something ripe, I just pick it," she says.

The two often consume their haul out in the yard, arriving back at the house empty-handed. No, they don't make pies or put things up for the winter. And they freeze only strawberries and blueberries - to make smoothies.

Finally, after so many tantalizing descriptions of sugar-sweet grapes and buttery peaches and branches so loaded with pears they droop on the ground, Gordon is asked which fruit is his favorite. This elicits a reluctant, and, considering the circumstances, strange confession:

He doesn't like fruit.

"To me, a steak and a baked potato would be really nice. If I could grow that, I would," he says sheepishly.

You get the feeling the man's had to explain himself a few times, but it's OK. He enjoys growing fruit as much as any baker pigging out on his own cookies.

And it's some harvest.

Gordon, a onetime police officer, chiropractor, karate instructor, and, for two years, physician, now retired, describes giving away "grocery sacks full of figs, pears, and tomatoes," which Joyce grows amid all the fruit; gathering "a colander a day of strawberries every day for a month"; and picking "buckets and buckets of pears, peaches, and apples" in season.

One wonders how he's able to be so successful, given the special challenges Shore gardens pose.

Mona Bawgus, a consumer horticulturist with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Atlantic County, lists several: flooding, salt spray, sandy soil, and extreme humidity that invites disease.

"Berries do great around here, but it's a lot of work to have fruit trees," she says. "Some people want to go organic, but we really recommend you follow a [pesticide] spray schedule."

Gordon hasn't had any flooding. Salt spray doesn't seem to bother his stuff. His soil works fine. He uses no pesticides, just a little fertilizer, and he'd like to try compost but his pile has yet to produce.

He does mulch, though when asked what he uses, his answer is "red" or "whatever is on sale at Home Depot." He waters by hand every morning for a half-hour.

Gordon's fiancee, the daughter of Missouri farmers, is a vegetable and flower grower, so they collaborate and extrapolate for fruit. He also learned about the natural world from his late father, Benjamin Lee Gordon, a physician who, like his son, had many interests outside of medicine.

In 1955, when Gordon's dad was just a teenager, he was written up in the Atlantic City Press for donating his extensive collection of snakes and lizards to the Philadelphia Zoo.

"He taught me to snare a lizard with a noose made out of a blade of grass," Gordon recalls.

No problem with lizards in this garden, although Gordon says 2012 is the first year he has had an issue with the apricots. The problem is still undiagnosed, but the fruits are brown and dried up, and Gordon says he may need to spray.

A storm in early July caused great destruction, including widespread power outages, but the Gordon house was left unscathed. The garden was not so lucky.

"The storm took out 95 percent of the fruit," Gordon says, describing small, unripe fruits splayed out all over the yard.

Well, if 95 percent is gone, there's an extremely hefty 5 percent left. The branches are loaded with fruit and the vines and bushes are layered with berries, which for some folks beats a boardwalk any day.

Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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