If you didn’t have the blessing of growing up in Florida like I did… my condolences. Welcome to Florida. This is a great place to garden. Yes, I hear some of you scoffing at that assertion. “Yeah, right! You should see the 20-pound rutabagas my pop used to grow in Jersey!”
Yes, I know. Florida has “bad soil!” It’s “too hot!” It “has no seasons!”
Whatever. If you don’t like it, go back home!
Ahem. Where was I?
Ah, yes. Look, you don’t need to worry about the soil, the heat, and the seasons if you decide to do a little ground work to grow the plants that actually work well here. I’m going to share those methods and plants with you in this book. Once you learn how to use a cool Florida winter to your advantage and reap great armfuls of sweet salad greens and juicy cabbages from your garden, you’ll never long for a white Christmas again. Well, not much.
If you just bought a property here in Florida, it’s time to do a little long-term planning. The first thing I like to do on a new piece of real estate is figure out
where my trees will go.
Why You Should Start with Trees
Fruit and nut trees are long-term food-producing scaffolding for a homestead. Seriously, there are few investments in this world that pay for themselves as well
as a fruit tree does. If you spend 25 dollars on a tree, plant it and care for it for a few years until it gets established, then for the next few generations you can reap
hundreds of dollars worth of its organic produce year after year. Planning first for the fruit trees just makes sense. After you figure out where those are going, it’s time for annuals!
In the center of this state, I’ve found that the three easiest trees to grow are mulberries, loquats, and Japanese persimmons. After planting those, I would add
some “sand pears” (Pineapple pear is my favorite variety, although Hood and Flordahome are also good), along with figs. If you want to fiddle around more,
add peaches, nectarines, and apples. Jujubes are also easy, as are bananas. Another great and often overlooked fruit is borne by the Pindo palm, a beautiful
cold-hardy palm with fruit that tastes like coconut, pineapple, or tropical fruit. It makes the best-tasting jelly in the world. Plant multiples of each tree, and you’ll
have good pollination for the trees that need it.
Citrus-growing used to be easy but is no longer, thanks to the many diseases now in this state. Citrus greening is the worst. It’s great if you already have a grapefruit or orange in the yard, but I wouldn’t add any more citrus until a solution to getting the viral trainwreck-in-progress under control is figured out.
If you’re in the northern half of the state, try planting nut trees, such as chestnuts and pecans. In you are in the southern half of the state, try planting macadamia.
If you’re in a totally tropical part of Florida, plant a tropical almond tree (this tree is not related to store-bought almonds). Florida is too humid for true almonds (and pistachios), although I wouldn’t be adverse to trying them and seeing what happens. Don’t think you’re going to get much of anything. If you do, I want to hear how you did it.
If you’re on the coast in the northern half of the state, you can add some plants that would be impossible farther inland, such as starfruit, mango, jabuticaba, and
sea grape. They are all good choices, although they may or may not fly. None of these will do well if temperatures fall below 32º F for more than a few hours. A
south-facing wall can probably support smaller trees during freezing nights. You can espalier them for better results.
In south Florida and large parts of coastal Florida, your fruit tree options are incredible. My in-laws, for example, bought a house that had a small mango
orchard planted in the front yard. The trees are now gigantic and bear incredible quantities of mangoes which bring them a little side income during mango
My parents have a tamarind, a canistel, an acerola cherry, and a jabuticaba tree in their front yard in Ft. Lauderdale. In the side yard they have a fig and a tropical almond. Out back there are a chocolate pudding fruit, a mango, a Key Lime, a coconut palm, multiple bananas, cattley guavas, Surinam cherries, dragon fruit cactus, a Grumichama (Brazil cherry), a starfruit, plantains, papayas, and probably a few more trees I can’t remember (they’re all part of The Great South Florida Food Forest Project). You’ll find more on that project at thesurvivalgardener.com).
If you want an orchard or a food forest in South Florida, all of those trees would be excellent choices.
Right now you’re probably saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t even know what most of those trees are!?”
Don’t worry about that; that’s part of the fun! Consider yourself a culinary explorer! Go look up those trees online, then search them out in your local ethnic market or fruit stand. Another great place to start is by seeking out some plant lovers in your hometown garden club or rare fruit tree group. Meetup.com is a
good place to find some of these folks and events. You’ll find there are plenty of fruit tree enthusiasts that are more than happy to tell you about their trees, direct
you to great nurseries, and maybe even share some produce with you.
Here are some options for south Florida fruit trees:
- Ackee (poisonous unless harvested at the right time)
- Cashew (a fruit and a nut!)
- Cinnamon (large tree and very beautiful)
- Coffee (grows into a small tree)
- Custard apple
- Jackfruit (largest fruit in the world)
- Jamaican cherry (delicious, like cotton candy caramel popcorn)
- Longan (high market value)
- Loquat (grows in north and south Florida)
- Lychee (high market value)
- Mulberries (various types of mulberries will grow from Miami to New
- Nutmeg (probably marginal)
- Peruvian apple cactus
- Sapodilla (yum)
- Soursop (anti-cancer)
Don’t forget coconut palms! Beyond the previouly listed, there are hundreds of more tropical edible trees.
The quantity of fruit you can grow in Florida is astounding. I’d bet on at least a thousand species since the tropics are by far a much more productive region than
the world’s temperate zones.
The farther north you move in the state, the more your options dwindle; however, if you like temperate climate fruit like plums, peaches, pears, and
apples, you’ll have lots of fun. The colder winters allow you to grow some of these northern species, such as plums, peaches, and pears, that cannot be grown
in the southern tip of the state. The transition isn’t immediate, but once you have overnight lows that go below the upper 20s, your tropical trees become a hard-to-grow liability rather than good orchard fodder. Conversely, your temperate climate trees need that cold to flower and fruit.
As I wrote previously, my favorite three North/Central Florida fruit trees are mulberries (white, black, Persian, and Pakistan), Japanese persimmons (both
astringent and non-astringent types—both useful on the homestead), and loquats. Finding improved loquat varieties isn’t easy, but they’re worth buying since they
bear larger and sweeter fruit than the landscape seedling trees usually found for sale.
After those, I would add the following trees to my North Florida orchard:
- Apples (Anna, Dorsett, Tropic Sweet, Ein Shemer—not the easiest, but they work)
- Autumn Olive (Small fruits for jam or ketchup—fixes nitrogen)
- Avocado (cold-hardy types such as Lila and Mexicola; subject to early death via laurel wilt disease)
- Bananas (Raja Puri, Orinoco, Red Dwarf, Ice Cream—all survive cold)
- Black Cherry (gets tall, making it difficult to harvest, but the flavor is amazing)
- Cattley (strawberry) guava (a cold-hardy relative of tropical guava)
- Chestnut (a fast producer of sweet nuts. Get two Dunstan types or go Chinese if you have a small yard. Chinese will also cross-pollinate with Dunstan.)
- Figs (Celeste, Brown Turkey, Texas Everbearing, and LSU Purple are great. Plant Green Ischia if the birds are stealing your fruit; they don’t seem to see the
- green figs! Stay away from Black Mission—it doesn’t seem to like the Florida climate.)
- Goumi berry (Small fruits for jam or fresh eating; they fix nitrogen)
- Japanese raisin tree (rare)
- Jujube (Chinese)
- Loquats (Finding improved loquat varieties isn’t easy, but they’re worth buying since they bear larger and sweeter fruit than the landscape seedling trees
- usually found for sale. If it’s been grafted—look for the graft point low on the tree or ask the seller—or is a named cultivar, i.e. the tag says “Novack” or “Big
- Jim” or “Christmas” or any number of other interesting names rather than just “loquat”—it’s an improved type and will usually be better than the more
- common seedlings.
- Nectarine (check http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ for varieties)
- Peaches (There are some excellent varieties that were developed by the University of Florida—you can see their website for details (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/).
- Seedling peaches grown from locally picked fruit are good. My least favorite peach is Florida King due to its high chill hour requirement and failure to fruit
- well in most of the state.)
- Pear (Pineapple is my favorite. Orient is a good pollinator.)
- Pecan (gets big and takes a long time but has high market value)
- Plums (UF varieties—http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/)
- Pomegranates (Note: some spontaneously die. Don’t get attached!)
- Sichuan Pepper (rare spice tree)
Among these trees there are many cultivars and variations that should keep you quite contented as you plan. I currently prefer a food forest to an orchard; however, an orchard is better than having just a couple of trees… and a couple of trees are still better than a lawn. (Note: Pick up my book Create Your Own
Florida Food Forest for lots more on food forests and species for the great state of Florida!)
As you plant, I recommend mixing up the species rather than keeping them together in blocks of the same type. That makes it harder for pests to jump from tree to tree. Running chickens through the orchard on a regular basis also feeds the trees and knocks back potential pest problems.
Along with these trees, you can add a couple of wires for grapes as a nice upgrade. Muscadines are the only grapes that do well in Florida. Stay away from
champagne grapes, seedless grapes, wine grapes, etc. They’ll all die from a malady called Pierce’s Disease. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Fortunately, there are
lots of good muscadine cultivars, and they’re very easy to grow.
Read more in Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening.