Japanese Maples for Spring!

March 20, 2009

rainbow mountain

There are no full time employees behind Rainbow Mountain Farms, the tree farm that made its debut at last week’s Saturday market. Tommy Clifford is an attorney, his brother Jake is a firefighter and their father Sars is a landscape designer. But to say that farming is a hobby for the Clifford family might not be accurate either.

The farm is 20 miles outside of Chico, in an area called Butte Creek. It’s on the same land the Cliffords lived on and grew much of their own food on when the boys and their sister Lindsay were growing up. So, the decision to make a go at farming and selling Japanese maples a few years back wasn’t much of a departure.  Today, the farm is an expression of the family’s intrinsic tie to the land they come from and a fascination with a unique type of tree.

“We all just fell in love with Japanese maples,” says Tommy. The Cliffords began working with 5 cultivars (each one bred for special characteristics, such as color, height and leaf type) and now they’re nearing 15. Growing the trees in Chico (a not-so-mild climate with very hot summers), Tommy adds, has illustrated how versatile the maples are. “People say they look delicate, but they are also pretty rugged,” he says.

Trees may not seem like an immediate fit in an urban farmers’ market, but most of the maples Rainbow Mountain Farms will be offering are in one- or two-gallon pots, meaning they’re not any heavier than a shopping bag filled with produce. The trees are generally between ¼ inch and ⅜ inch wide at the trunk. A tree’s “caliper,” says Tommy tells a shopper more about the true maturity of the tree than its height, since many of the trees are dwarf cultivars.

rainbow mountainRainbow Mountain grows all the trees in pots, so they can control the soil and water. That also means the maples do well in small spaces. “The Bay Area is a great climate for these trees,” Tommy adds. “Japanese maples generally like filtered light, and there’s a lot of that here. You could even put one on an balcony that gets afternoon sun, because there’s so much fog.”  

The Cliffords’ land has never been certified organic, but the family hasn’t used pesticides, either. The land has a well at the top of it, and benefits from gravity when it comes to irrigation. Water is one of the biggest challenges Tommy expects in the coming years; the farm drip irrigation helps them conserve. They also use mulch and weed cloth in the nursery areas and plan to get all their energy (for back-up water pumping, for instance) from solar panels they will be installing by the end of this summer. 

Instead of planting the trees in commercial potting mix, Rainbow Mountain combines soil from two parts of the family land – one up in the rocky, mountainous area, and another down by the sandier creek bed.

Rainbow Mountain Farms sells at two farmers’ markets in Chico and has also begun selling at the Temescal market in Oakland. But, despite rapid growth (Tommy says he still feels like a rookie in the Major Leagues), no one in the family anticipates making a living selling the trees.  jake and tommy

“On the one hand, there’s always the draw to grow” Tommy says, “but honestly that’s not why we’re in it.”

As a father with a second child on the way, he also wants to ensure that the next generation of Cliffords feels the same connection to the natural world that he did growing up.
 “We hope that this will be a reminder that that’s a special space out there…and they don’t have to want [to continue the business], but they should try to celebrate it, however it makes sense to them at the time.”

You can find the Rainbow Mountain Farms stand in front of the Ferry Building, on the north side, through mid-June.

Photos: At top, Tommy Clifford with his wife Anagha Dandekar Clifford and son Kanan Clifford. In the middle, the Clifford farm. At bottom, Jake and Tommy at work on the farm (courtesy of the Clifford family).

Topics: ,