For most people, an etrog is on their mind only around Sukkot time, but for one Scottsdale family, it’s a year-round commitment.
In their backyard, attorney Matt Bycer and his wife, Elly, have more than 400 etrog trees, some which are more than 6 feet tall. Many of these plants are from seeds Matt received from members of the Valley’s Jewish community; others came from individuals across the country.
Last year at this time, the plants covered a 600-square-foot area in their backyard; since then it has grown to 900 square feet and Matt says he plans to increase that space again this year.
“Matt spends a lot of time with the trees, working on them and researching how to best care for them,” Elly told Jewish News in an email. For now, he spends about 10-15 hours a week outdoors, where he waters the plants by hand; they are arranged in sections, with walking paths between these sections.
“Nava, our 18-month old daughter, thinks of it like a maze and a wonderfully fun game,” Elly wrote. “She loves running through it. Both Matt and I get a lot of joy watching Nava play in the plant area.” Elly says she doesn’t do any of the yard work herself, “but Nava and I love visiting him outside while he is working on the trees.”
She says that her husband has promised to reserve an area in their backyard for a play area for Nava and the second child they’re expecting in December. Once that is built, she envisions the trees serving as a scenic backdrop, providing some nice shading, and a “sweet smelling recreation area for the kids and for me!”
Matt started what he calls his “etrog experiment” about five years ago, in hopes of being able to provide etrogim (citrus fruits used for the holiday of Sukkot) for American Jews during the 2021 shmitta year (the next one falls in 2014-2015, but he doesn’t expect to see any fruit for another three to four more years). During a shmitta year, Jews are not supposed to benefit from produce coming out of Israel, which is a main supplier of etrogim. (See “The etrog experiment” on jewishaz.com.)
After the article ran last year, he received requests for religious school field trips and hopes to soon offer tours to teach religious school students about the history of the etrog and about its religious significance.
When Matt started his “etrog experiment,” he incubated seeds in his living room, using many lights and covering the walls with aluminum foil. When he got married in 2010, the plants moved outside, where he keeps them under a shaded structure built from random parts of a sukkah.
In January of this year, when Elly and Nava were visiting Elly’s family in New York, Phoenix experienced its coldest winter in decades. To protect the plants from frost, Matt enlisted his friend Ari Parkhurst, a teacher at Yeshiva High School of Arizona, to help him move the plants indoors. They covered the floors of the house with plastic tarps and moved the plants inside, filling an open space that serves as the family’s living room, dining room and kitchen, as well as some space in the library and his home office.
“He sent me pictures while I was in New York,” Elly recalls. “What a sight that was!”
The plants remained indoors even after she returned, for a total of 15 days. “It felt like we were living in a forest,” she wrote in an email. “All the trees made it difficult to walk through the house (we had carved out a small walking path to get in and out of the house) … I would be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to have the plants – and the bugs – brought back outside. But it did make for quite an adventure!”
By day, Matt, 34, is an attorney at his law firm, Bycer Law, PLC, which specializes in patents, trademarks and copyrights. He also teaches for the National Paralegal College in Phoenix and is a member of Ahavas Torah in Scottsdale and a longtime participant of the Jewish Arizonans on Campus learning program.
He’s learned about growing etrogim primarily from Internet research and consults with a citrus expert in Florida. The project is under the supervision of Rabbi Zvi Holland, the former dean of the Phoenix Community Kollel who is now a kashrut administrator with the Star-K kosher supervising agency.
Jon Sigona of The Perfect Water Technologies, a member of Congregation Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, has supplied the water treatment system that allowed him to start the project and helped the plants flourish, according to Matt. Arizona tap water is too salinic, alkaline and chlorinated to successfully grow sensitive citrus in pots, he says, so they treat the water and store it in containers to water the plants.
“I also collect rainwater and condensation water from my AC unit,” he wrote in an email, “and take buckets from the containers to water them.” His current capacity is about 85 gallons, which he says he more than surpassed this summer; he plans to add two new 330-gallon tanks. “My capacity should be over 600 gallons and should last me a growing season or two, before I have to expand again.”
Another challenge he experienced was the cost and supply of the soil; both were more than he originally anticipated: his project costs about $10,000 each year.
“In order to get the best price and best medium, I had to buy in quantity, so I got two pallets of coconut husk chips shipped in – about 1.3 tons.” He puts the plants in new pots each year and this was enough to repot all of last year’s plants and pot-up all the new plants this year. “I will likely need another shipment to re-pot again this coming spring.”
“The question I get asked most often is whether or not I have any fruit yet,” Matt says. “None yet, but G-d willing soon! It’s as yet an unfinished experiment.”
“My favorite part about the project is seeing how supportive and excited our friends and family, especially my family in New York, are about it,” Elly writes in an email. “They all want to be involved as much as they can.”
Last year, her father, Mayer Amsel, collected several etrogim after Sukkot, and shipped them to Matt for planting and he plans to do it again this year. Her grandfather, Louis Palgon, also shipped his etrog to Matt.
“In fact, the plants from my grandfather’s etrog are doing exceptionally well, and Matt has named that strain of plants ‘The Louie’ after him,” Elly says.
“My grandparents love to hear about the project, and ask about it every time we speak to them. It gives me a lot of joy that Matt’s project has connected our family.”
This article first appeared on jewishaz.com.