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Green Acre

Linda Croucher holds out a ripe peach-plum, a sweet-as-honey plum that, as the name implies, looks a heck of a lot like a peach.

"Try this," she says.

Problem is, I haven't finished eating the Santa Rosa plum she plucked moments earlier from another tree in her backyard orchard, and that Santa Rosa, its cabernet-colored juice dripping down my chin, tastes too good to hurry.

When I return a week later with photographer Jamie Lusch in tow, I can't help but laugh as the scene is repeated, only this time it's Linda's husband, Gary, who is trying to fatten up his visitors, and it's Jamie whose cheeks are bulging as he oohs and aahs his way through an elephant-heart plum and another of those amazing peach-plums.

This is what happens when you visit two Master Gardeners who have been gardening a 1-acre piece of land for roughly 40 years. There's food everywhere, literally dropping from the branches and vines. Apples, figs, tomatoes, pumpkins, chard, beans, eggplants, cucumbers, squash. And flowers. And trees. And shrubs. And ground covers. And container plants.

And then there's the hardscaping, such as the upper patio and gazebo that stand above a lower patio, offering a vista of the kidney-shaped pool and waterfall shaded by a towering coastal redwood.

There are places to hide in this yard — or repose — including a little side patio nook beneath a towering wall of morning glories that offers a nice view of the dozen or so bird feeders bustling with feathered activity.

Hardscaping and landscaping on this gently sloping piece of land meld seamlessly into flower beds, vegetable gardens and the orchard, where Linda can't even tell you how many varieties of apples she's growing because she went on a grafting spree a few years ago, so each tree bears several different types.

The Croucher cornucopia began in 1964, when Gary began building a house with his uncle on an acre of land carved from an old, 360-acre homestead off Old Stage Road outside Central Point. The parcel was little more than a field back then, and the modest, 1,300-square-foot house started out as a bachelor pad for Gary, a jack-of-all trades who was part owner with his dad of Croucher & Croucher, an automobile-repair shop that operated at 31 S. Grape St. in Medford for about three decades.

Gary, now 75, moved on to a career at UPS after that but, by then, had married Linda, his wife of the past 37 years, and the modest, little field was on its way to becoming a garden of plenty.

It all evolved without a plan, Gary says, such as the multiple garages that were added as his hobbies of racecar driving and radio-controlled model airplanes demanded.

"It was more of a need than a plan," Gary says "We added on as we needed. Just a piece at a time. And we always have ideas for another job."

The couple became Master Gardeners in 1984, taking the class through the Oregon State University Extension Service together, and even that move wasn't part of a long-term plan.

"We did it to settle an argument," Linda says. "I thought he was watering too much. It turns out, he wasn't," she admits.

Gary says he doesn't really have a favorite part of the garden, though he lights up talking about his tuberous hibiscus — four different colors with flowers as big as dinner plates. He shrugs a lot and comes off as nonchalant talking about the size of his produce and the depth of the rich soil, which covers your shoes as you sink into it.

Linda, a retired dental assistant, is decidedly more intense, with definite opinions on what's best in the garden.

"Supersweet is the only corn I'd ever grow," she says. "The rest is a waste."

"You've got to have flowers in the garden," she offers a few minutes later. "And you have to have tomatoes and bell peppers."

"Blue Lakes are the only beans to grow," she adds. "And you gotta have grapes."

Ducking under a heavily laden apple branch, she throws some wisdom about fruit trees over her shoulder: "I don't know why anybody would plant a regular-sized tree anymore. Semi-dwarf is the only way to go. You can mow under them, and you can pick them easily."

Her opinions come from experience — and failures, she admits. The couple recently replaced the upper patio, for instance, which virtually was destroyed by a sycamore tree they never should have planted in the first place, they now realize.

"I would encourage anybody to go to the Master Gardener Spring Fair," Gary says. Or talk to the experts at Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center on Hanley Road before making a big investment in trees or other plantings near the house.

"They can tell you if it's going to be destructive," he says. "Like that sycamore that had no business there," he says.

Thinking back on that mostly empty field that now merits a spread in a home-and-garden magazine, Gary and Linda agree it took a lot of work — more than most people would be willing to undertake.

"Years of work," Linda says. "But it's fun. It really is fun."

Gary shakes his head when asked how two people can garden an entire acre this intensively all by themselves.

"It's not more than I can handle," he says. "It's what keeps me young."

Reach Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at 541-776-8784 or dsmigelski@mailtribune.com.

Gary Croucher surveys his bountiful orchard.