Plant strategically to enjoy homegrown fruit year-round

One of the great joys of gardening in Florida is that you can actually enjoy the fruits of your labor — as in oranges, mangoes, bananas and lemons. You can even grow heat-tolerant blueberries, apples, peaches and plums that taste similar to fruits grown in northern climates.

You don't need a large yard or full sun to sweeten your landscape. Fruiting plants come in all sizes and shapes, including dwarf-sized trees, vines, ground cover and shrubs that are easily espaliered to a fence or wall. Mix them in with your existing plants and you'll have an edible landscape to enjoy year-round.

That's what Greg Charles has done at his home in the Broadwater neighborhood of St. Petersburg, and it's bursting with fruits, nuts and other edible produce throughout the year. From the front curbside to the backyard fence, there's plenty to eat. Need a lemon for a glass of tea or a persimmon for the fruit bowl? Just step out the front door and pick them.

"I'm not going to pay for a lemon at the store when I can just pick one in my yard," Charles says. The same goes for figs, bananas, oranges, mangoes, pecans, macadamia nuts, cashews and plenty of other produce that's ripening throughout the year on more than 60 fruit-bearing trees and other plants.

It's all totally organic, with soil that's enriched with compost and recycled mulch. He doesn't spray for pests, which haven't posed a major problem. However, a pet-proof bait box atop a high pole in the yard is filled with rat poison. It's unreachable by the family's two cats that like to lounge outside and watch the birds, butterflies and bees that are attracted to fruiting plants.

But there's a downside, sort of. "The problem with fruits is that when you become successful, you have more damn fruit than you know what to do with," says Charles, director of the horticulture program at nearby Pinellas Technical Education Center. It helps to have friends and family who like fruit. If there are still too many loquats, tangelos, cherries or papayas, there's always the compost pile, he notes.

Charles likes to grow some of the more unusual and exotic fruits, such as the Asian grape-like Wampi fruit. He makes it all look so easy, but then again he has taught Florida horticulture for more than 30 years.

Gardening newbies, take heart: Beginners can grow oranges the size of baseballs and enough avocados to have guacamole for life. The keys to success are choosing the correct cultivars for our climate and planting them in the right places, says Jene Vanbutsel, owner of Jene's Tropical Fruit retail nursery in St. Petersburg, which also sells plants online at www. tropicalfruit.com. Soil shouldn't be an issue because most fruiting plants tolerate a wide range of Florida soils, she says.

Full sun (a minimum of 6 hours of direct sun) is best for most fruiting plants. Part-sun will suffice for some plants, such as figs and blueberries. Cold-hardy plants, such as avocado, can be used to block winter winds and protect more sensitive plants, including mango, tropical cherry and atemoya custard apple, she suggests.

With some fruiting trees maturing at 25 feet or more — grapefruit is typically the largest — size can be an issue for many homeowners. But even apartment and condo dwellers with a sunny patio or balcony can grow fruit, Vanbutsel says. Ten-foot-tall dwarf varieties, which Vanbutsel calls "condo trees," are perfect for containers and produce abundant, full-sized fruits.

If you like lemons, oranges, tangerines and limes, but only have room for one tree, Vanbutsel has the answer — the ultimate space-saving "cocktail tree." Thanks to ingenious multiplant grafting by growers, this 10- to 12-foot tree produces several varieties of citrus. Vanbutsel sells the young trees in 14-inch containers for about $80 apiece, with a variety of fruiting combinations to choose from.

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.

How to plant fruit trees

Loosen the top 3 feet of soil and prepare a planting hole about three times the size of the container. The new tree should sit in the hole about an inch higher than it was in the container.

Refill about half the hole with soil and water, then tamp or press the soil to remove air pockets. Repeat two more times until enough soil is added.

Mulch, but leave plenty of breathing room at the trunk.

Water at least three times each week for the first two weeks and provide at least 1 inch of water every week thereafter.

The year-round harvest plan

You can pick fresh, homegrown fruit all year long if you choose a variety of plants based on when their fruits mature. According to the University of Florida, here are recommended cultivars and when they bear fruit:

Oranges: Depending on the cultivar, oranges mature in September and October (Satsuma Mandarin); October through January (Navel, Hamlin and Parson Brown); November and December (Ambersweet); December through February (Pineapple); January through March (Temple orange hybrid); and March through June (Valencia).

Grapefruits: Duncan, Marsh, Redblush, Thompson and Flame cultivars bear fruit from November through March.

Tangerines: October through December (Robinson); November through January (Fallglo); December through January (Dancy); and January through March (Murcott).

Lemons: Meyer, Lisbon, Bearss, Eureka, Ponderosa and Villafranca fruit August through November.

Limes: Tahiti and key lime bear fruit from July through September.

Specialty: Atemoya/custard apple (late August through October); avocado (late May through March); banana (year-round); calamondin (September through December); lychee (June through early July); mango (May through October); papaya (year-round); passion fruit (June through December); persimmon (September through October).

How sweet it is with Miracle Fruit

If you've got a sweet tooth but want to cut calories, your secret weapon can be right outside your door. The Miracle Fruit tree, which produces small red berries that make everything taste sweet, thrives in the Florida garden, even in part shade.

Native to West Africa, Miracle Fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) is a plain-looking tree (similar to an oak) that grows about 10 feet tall. But eat the white flesh of just one of its berries and for the next hour or two, everything you eat will taste as sweet as candy — even lemons, pickles and vinegar. The berry contains the protein miraculin, which changes the way your taste buds perceive sour foods.

The tiny fruits, which sell for about $3 each from online suppliers, have become so popular that people are known to host "flavor-tripping parties" where guests nibble on sour foods and drinks after eating one of the berries, which themselves taste tart.

"The amazing thing is that I've carried Miracle Fruit for 20 years, and no one gave it any attention," says Jene Vanbutsel, owner of Jene's Tropical Fruit retail nursery in St. Petersburg, where Miracle Fruit trees in 8-inch containers (most with berries) sell for $35.

It's not just for dieters or the curious. "It's great for diabetics and chemotherapy patients because of that metal taste in their mouth," she adds.

.about the series

Four weeks

to victory

See earlier installments at links.tampabay.com.

• Aug. 30: Planning your garden.

• Sept. 6: Improving your soil for the best vegetables. Plus, a Florida gardener's guide to the perfect tomato.

• Today: Expand your harvest with tropical produce.

• Sept. 27: Community gardens and organic food co-ops.

On the cover

Jene Vanbutsel, owner of Jene's

Tropical Fruit in St. Petersburg, provided these specimens from her nursery last week and arranged them for

Times photographer Scott Keeler

. about the series

Four weeks

to victory

• Aug. 30: Planning your garden. What to plant, where and what equipment you'll need. Available online at links.tampabay.com

• Sept. 6: Improving your soil. Delicious, nutritious vegetables begin with healthy soil. You'll learn how to prepare yours for planting and to care for crops from seed to harvest. Plus, a Florida gardener's guide to the perfect tomato.

• Today: Plant something different. Expand your harvest with citrus, banana, sugar cane, pineapple and other tropical produce.

• Sept. 20: Growing together. Community gardens and organic food co-ops are popular alternatives when you can't grow food at home

Plant strategically to enjoy homegrown fruit year-round 09/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 4:30am]

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