When I was a little girl, we lived in a house in Ontario, Canada that had a small apple orchard as our backyard. It seems huge to me in retrospect, but it was probably no more than 20 trees. Every spring, the blossoms would delight us only to yield wormy apples not fit for eating, making pies, or anything. My parents weren’t botanically savvy and so most of the apples fell to the ground and rotted. We needed an “Orchard Whisperer.” I guess we needed someone like Gabe Mitchell.
Gabe is the College Area Community Garden (CACG) volunteer orchardist. Yes, it’s a thing! Located next door to SDSU on 1 acre of private property, the nonprofit College Area Community Garden is one of only a handful of the 60-plus community gardens in San Diego County, which includes a substantial number of fruit trees.
Gabe is an arborist, certified with ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) and holds a number of certifications from the Cuyamaca College Ornamental Horticulture Program. He also holds a qualified applicator’s certificate (QAC) though the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Gabe is clearly passionate about trees, and cites the SD Professional Tree Care Association’s annual seminars as having fueled this passion for orchard care and culture. He currently studies toward his bachelor’s degree, and works for Caltrans with the District 11 Water Management Team — all that while he oversees the CACG 35-fruit-tree orchard and its irrigation. He’s very busy.
I caught up with him and we talked, well, trees. Gabe‘s father had a landscape company and worked on the grounds at SDSU. Gabe also was a groundskeeper at SDSU for seven years, while taking classes in the Horticulture Program at Cuyamaca College. This combination of activities, he says, was the catalyst for his love of trees.
As he mentioned, and I agree, it’s a rare person who has not been moved while gazing up at the boughs of an ancient redwood or spruce. That feeling heightens one’s awareness and renders a reverence for those who have gone before, and who have maintained grace and stature despite inevitable upheaval throughout decades. Gabe feels strongly that in our current society, a connection with the earth is tantamount to well-being. Naturally that is a common motivation for all of the gardeners at CACG.
Gabe cares for all 58 fruit trees in the CACG including citrus, apple and stone fruit like apricot, plum, nectarine and peach as well as many citrus trees and avocados and papayas. He and the CACG board dedicated the Espalier Zone (trained trees on a horizontal plane) to his grandfather, Augustine Mitchell Jr. We can’t help feeling his grand dad would be proud.
—Robin Clarke lives in San Diego. She is a contributing writer who volunteers and leases space at the nonprofit, organic and sustainable College Area Community Garden. For more information about the garden, visit collegeareagarden.org.