What better way to study horticulture than to plant a citrus garden for students to nurture, observe and learn from on a daily basis? That’s just what Joe Le Vert has done for the past 35 years at Aquinas High School. Today he and his students are quite literally reaping the fruits of his labor.
The campus was sparse before Le Vert arrived, but over the years he has devoted himself to transforming the land into an oasis filled with rare palm trees and countless varieties of citrus plants. From the voracious appetites of the football and baseball teams to students exploring campus in search of a snack, the citrus fruits don’t go to waste. They are easy on the eyes too. With citrus trees and lush tropical foliage around every corner, you’d never guess these gardens are in Augusta, Ga.
If you’ve ever wanted a lesson in the wide variety of citrus fruits that can grow in Augusta, Le Vert is your man—the citrus man. From Yuzuquats and Citrumelos to Ichang Lemons and Satsumas, some are relatively common while others are exotic. Many varieties yield tart and sweet fruit, bitter juices and even pulpy edible rinds. Sampling others might be more like a test of manhood. “You could bottle this juice and end wars with it,” Le Vert says. Each plant provides a lesson to his students. Some fruits are purely ornamental while others are what he refers to as “citrus caviar.”
As a child growing up in Atlanta, Le Vert credits both of his grandmothers for planting the seed of interest in horticulture. “I remember one of my grandmothers gave me a nickel while we were at a nursery and I bought a big piece of St. Augustine grass.” This was the first of many botanical purchases to come. Le Vert also acknowledges the process of quiet observation in helping notice things in nature.
After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in botany, life’s path took Le Vert to the Netherlands, Pennsylvania and even Notre Dame where he studied theology and taught before deciding that he had seen his last harsh northern winter. “I drew a line on the map where palm trees grow and didn’t apply for anything north of that line. I felt like I’d paid my dues,” he laughs. Fortunately for Augusta, the coordinates of that line were above the CSRA and he landed a job teaching at Aquinas. After getting acquainted with the area, he met friends in the horticulture world where his fascination with citrus plants began. Bob McCartney of Woodlands Nursery in Aiken and Tom McClendon, author of Hardy Citrus For The Southeast, became his mentors.
Today Le Vert is the one doing the influencing for those who might be lucky enough to encounter him. Whether a student in one of his philosophy, theology or horticulture classes, or someone from the community, they will walk away enlightened. There’s no doubt they will take with them a little nugget of information, an appreciation for nature and a good laugh.
Le Vert is a rare breed. He is both contemplative and pensive while also sociable with a dry wit. In this world of technology, it is refreshing to see someone who still appreciates each moment as it is without trying to turn it in to something else.
Le Vert is also seeing the fruits of his labor in the form of children and grandchildren of former students coming through his classroom doors. It’s a generational thing.
When he started working at Aquinas he wanted to take more of a lab approach to his teaching. “Botany keeps you grounded,” he says. “When you are doing philosophy and theology, if you don’t have something that’s very practical, you can get some funny ideas about life. When I’m teaching theology I bring kids outside. They need something pretty concrete to keep it compelling.”
Touring the Aquinas grounds on a crisp sunny day, bright orange, lime green and yellow fruits hang like ornaments on many of the trees.
Hints of citrus perfume the air. It makes you feel happy. Le Vert points out the more unique plants, some with quite a lineage, rooted in history. He has a Seville orange tree that was taken from a cutting in St. Simons and is believed to be a tree planted by General James Oglethorpe. Another distinctive citrus plant hails from an estate in Florida owned by the famed author of The Yearling, Marjorie Keenan Rawlings. He modestly mentions a blue ribbon he recently received at the 2016 Southeastern Citrus Expo for his Chinotto Sour Orange. Each one of these plants is a conversation piece providing insight into his life and the lives of his students. From a former student who now makes Limoncello to sports teams who have wiped out an entire tree’s fruit during one practice, each story is unique. He recalls plants friends have brought back from their travels and he even makes a reference to the forbidden fruit.
This abundant outdoor classroom that Le Vert has created is as prolific in its fruit as it is in values, lessons and morals that have shaped the beliefs of his students for generations. It is nearly impossible to visit the campus of Aquinas without feeling inspired to plant a citrus plant at home.
Planting Citrus in Augusta
The citrus plants at Aquinas certainly debunk the myth that you must live in tropical climates like sunny Florida or California to successfully grow your own citrus fruits. To incorporate citrus plants into your own landscape, consider a few things first. Find a well-drained, sunny spot in your yard. The soil at Aquinas is mostly sandy soil, but Le Vert says the plants will adapt as long as the soil has the proper drainage. Best sites for planting include the east or south side of a building, the top of a hill and a location with protection from wind. Don’t establish new plants in the harsh winter, though they can be purchased and kept in an area protected from the freezing temperatures until ready to plant in the spring. Le Vert recommends a 10-10-10 fertilizer for citrus plants. An easy way to jog your memory: fertilize on St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and lightly on July 4th.
Woodlanders in Aiken, an international rare plant mail order company, offers a wide range of citrus plants which are hardy specimens and have been successfully grown in the CSRA. Bob McCartney at Woodlanders stresses that they are not a walk-in garden center. The best way to shop their citrus plants is to visit www.woodlanders.net. Choose the “shop our plants” tab and search under “C” for Citrus, “F” for Fortunella and “X” for citrus hybrids. Contact them directly if you have any questions about their plant offerings. Large-scale garden centers occasionally carry fruit trees as well. Lemon and lime trees are plentiful at these types of stores, but remember that these must be cared for in the freezing temperatures and they are not suitable to plant in the ground in Augusta. Perfect for containers, lemons and limes will thrive if potted in a sunny spot on a porch all summer until they must be moved inside for the cold winter months.
Whether for cooking, snacking or a pop of color in your garden, Le Vert suggests a few tried and true citrus plants that yield sweet to sour fruits and juices. Keraji Mandarin, Yuzuquat, Satsuma and Meiwa Kumquat are four citrus plants that will add zest to any home garden. The Keraji Mandarin is a medium-sized evergreen tree with white fragrant flowers. Tom McClendon describes the fruit as “small, yellow flattened tangerines that have a sweet lemonade taste unlike any other citrus fruits.” Their skin peels easily and the plants provide tons of fruit.
For a fruit with delicious juice for cooking, look no further than the Yuzuquat, a Yuzu and Nagami kumquat hybrid. It has excellent flavor and its juice really enhances the flavors of fish or fajitas. It is also perfect for making Limoncello. Satsumas are especially popular at Aquinas and while the fruit can be found at Whole Foods and other specialty markets, there’s something to be said for picking it off your own tree. Satsumas are easy to peel and have a delicious tangerine flavor. Another favorite of Aquinas students is the Meiwa Kumquat. Resembling the size of a large cherry tomato, the fruit gets sweeter the longer it stays on the tree. It produces nice round fruits with a sweet edible rind, taking the mess out of peeling the fruit.
With fragrant blooms, tasty, edible fruits, sour juices, tart zest and leafy foliage, incorporating citrus into your yard will evoke that island feel. Who doesn’t need a vacation?
Packing a hefty dose of vitamin C, citrus fruits are an ideal immune boosting snack. These bright orange super foods contain cancer-fighting antioxidants called flavonoids. They also provide cardiovascular benefits like protection against heart disease and improved blood flow through the coronary arteries. In addition to vitamin C, they pack fiber, vitamin A, potassium, folate and calcium. So what are you waiting on? New Year’s Resolution #1 – Eat more citrus!
This article appears in the January 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.