Returning to its roots

Long-neglected San Juan Bautista orchard getting makeover

HEALTHY TREE State Park Interpreter Marcos Vizcaino describes a blossoming pomegranate tree, one of the few remaining trees at the orchard in center of San Juan Bautista. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

San Juan Bautista is a city that prides itself on its history and its preservation of artifacts from long ago. Its state historic park features several structures built in the 1800s, meticulously maintained, highlighted by its 15th century Spanish-era mission.

So it’s baffling that an historic orchard situated right in the middle of town could be unkempt for years, with dead trees and overgrown weeds, and has become a popular hang-out spot for feral chickens.

Until now.

Landscapers have been working in the orchard at the corner of Third and Washington streets since mid-July, cultivating the ground, trimming overgrown cacti and removing dead trees. It’s a welcome sight for residents who have voiced concern over the appearance of the orchard over the last 14 years.

State Park Interpreter Marcos Vizcaino said the orchard had been maintained by a gardener for a number of years. However, when the gardener retired in 2005, the position went unfilled, and the duties fell on the already overworked park maintenance staff and volunteers.

“It’s been getting really shabby over the years,” Vizcaino said.

The orchard, which was once the home of a livery stable used by the Coast Line Stage Co. in the late 1800s, was planted in the 1940s. In its heyday, roughly 50 trees were on the property, including pomegranates, lemons, pears, plums and more.

Now, the sparsely populated orchard has 14 trees in various stages of life and death.

A laundry list of activities await the crew from Hollister-based Lee Landscaping, which has been contracted to complete the work. The first phase will remove the dead trees, as well as install drip irrigation throughout the orchard. A wood chip mulch will be installed to prevent weeds from sprouting.

In addition, new gold granite ADA-accessible pathways will be constructed through the middle of the orchard and along its perimeter.

The first phase will cost $70,000, all paid for by the Plaza History Association. President Bob Cable and his wife Melinda, who serves as co-secretary of the board, joined the association 14 years ago, and have made it “our personal objective to get this orchard taken care of.”

Besides funding challenges, the orchard is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making it difficult to work on the property. For instance, crews can not dig more than one foot into the ground without an archaeologist on site to record any findings.

“[The orchard is] sitting on top of many different layers of California history,” Vizcaino said.

“It’s been a very tedious process of trying to bring changes about while staying in step with the historical past,” Melinda Cable added.

The Plaza History Association was established in 1981 to support interpretive activities in San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.

The association stocks a period clothing room and library for use by members, docents and volunteers in developing programs, and also provides volunteer labor and funds to help in restoration projects.

The PHA, along with State Parks, hosts the annual Early Days in San Juan on Father’s Day weekend, taking a look at life in the 1800s. It also presents a living history day the first Saturday of the month. 

Its primary funding source comes from fourth-graders on field trips to the park, who spend money in the gift shop. Bob Cable said the association received $43,000 from the purchases during the previous school year.

“That’s our fundraising source,” he said. “That’s what gets us going.”

The orchard project’s hefty $70,000 price tag is the largest investment the association has made in its history.

“It’s the biggest thing we have ever endeavored,” Melinda Cable said. “A few years of our income is going into this project.”

The first phase is expected to wrap up in October. Plans for a second phase include planting new trees to fill in the barren spots, an area for weddings and other events, a vineyard of California mission grapes fronting Third Street, and other features. Bob Cable estimated another $70,000 will be needed to complete it.

Mary Ann Lee, owner of Lee Landscaping, said she was excited that her business was chosen to conduct the work.

“It was a project I was interested in,” she said. “We all had the same vision in mind.”

Due to years of neglect, many trees in the orchard have died and are being removed.

“We are trying to keep as many of the old trees that we can,” Lee said.

With the proper care, the orchard should once again return to its prosperous roots, Vizcaino said, and its location has many things going for it. The soil is extremely fertile, and is complemented by cool air and just the right amount of sun.

“We want to turn it back into a lush, very fruitful orchard,” he said.

The Cables said they were relieved to at last see work underway on the orchard, and praised those involved with making it happen.

“We worked very closely with Marcos,” Bob Cable said. “It’s been such a collaborative action, him on the parks side and us as a nonprofit. Truly our goals and objections are completely in line.”

Those interested in supporting the efforts of the Plaza History Association can call 831.623.4881 or visit tinyurl.com/y5bfjq2b.

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