Pong enjoys fruits of facing challenges

Managing Editor

FULTON, Md. (Oct. 20, 2015) — When Al Pong’s wife Mae said they should try to grow citrus trees on their Howard County farm, he said was against it at first.
The couple had fruit growing experience with a five-acre peach and apple orchard in Silver Spring but tried unsuccessfully to grow kumquats there before moving.
“That was a disaster,” Mae said of the Asian citrus trees. “We didn’t know how to take care of them.”
But after seeing citrus trees growing at a home nearby, Mae told her husband it was worth another try and Al agreed.
“It’s a challenge and I like a challenge,” said Al, a retired electrical engineer. “I guess I grew into it.”
Soon after they moved to Fulton in 2001 they started again with about a dozen trees they got from Home Depot and planted persimmons and other tree fruit on the 26-acre orchard.  Through the Southeast Citrus Expo, they connected with other growers who were outside the Florida and California growing areas and relied on University of Maryland experts to learn how to propagate their own trees which they started doing five years ago.
Now they have hundreds of citrus trees in various growth stages all in pots so they can be moved indoors for winter.
The Pongs have about 30 varieties of citrus, including Persian lime, Ponderosa lemon, pink lemon, red navel orange, Kishu tangerine, Dekopon and Bhudda’s hand.
“I’ve just kind of gradually built up,” he said. “Once I’m convinced, I try it.”
Al said his focus is growing trees that larger nurseries selling mostly ornamentals don’t carry. Many of the varieties have significance in Asian cultures or some unique feature. The fruit from a Bhudda’s hand tree has several fingerlike tentacles.
“I try to sell the things that they don’t have,” he said of more typical nurseries. “I don’t want to compete with them,” he said.
Though he’s increased the number of trees over the years, he said it’s still not enough to have a consistent supply of fruit to sell. So marketing the trees for people to grow their own citrus fruit has been the focus.
“It’s easier for me to sell the tree. I try to create a demand for it,” Al said.
The Pongs sell some trees at the farm but the bulk of the trees sell at the seven central Maryland farmers’ markets they go to each week. Some trees are also sold to out of state buyers through the Pong’s Orchard website.
Al said his biggest challenge recently has been keeping them alive through the winter. Before threat of a freeze, they move trees into an insulated garage but the last two winters have been harsh enough to kill 30 to 50 percent of the trees.
Along with citrus the Pongs grow lots of other niche fruit and vegetables like aronia, asian pears, goji berries, figs, jujubes and asian long beans along with more standard items like peaches, apples, cherries, plums, hot peppers and grape tomatoes.
“We’re always trying new things,” Al said. “You mention it, I’ll try it.”