Southwest Florida: Fruit Tree Paradise

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It used to be that most every Florida home had a citrus tree or two out back. You just had to plant a little orange tree, wait a few years, then go out and pick the fruit when it was ripe.

Sadly, those days are long gone. Decades of gigantic monocultures and industrial production methods have opened the door to a plague of citrus tree pests and diseases. For a while, technology kept up, but the latest scourge, an infectious disease known as “citrus greening," has proven unstoppable and is decimating the industry. Many experts say Florida's days as a major citrus producer are numbered, since even if a remedy for citrus greening can be found, it might not be economically viable.

Is this the end of fruit trees in Florida? Quite the contrary. Mangos, avocados, figs, and a host of other fruits love the warm winters of Florida's Suncoast. Every month is a harvest month for Suncoast growers. The winter months feature loquats, a small yellow fruit with a sweet peach-like flavor, and the canistel, whose fruit tastes like rich custard pudding. Spring brings the stone fruits - peaches and plums - as well as mulberries and blueberries. Summer starts off with a bang with the beloved lychee, followed by its cousin, the longan. Figs and carambola (starfruit) produce during much of the summer and fall. Mango season runs at last half of the year, with early-season varieties available in the late spring, and late-season favorites producing into the fall. Similarly, avocados season stretches from summer well into the winter months. Local bananas and papayas can ripen whenever it's warm. But this is just the beginning. A host of “rare fruits” - most of them not really so rare, just not grown commercially for one reason or another - populate back yards throughout the coastal region. These exotic beauties range from the jakfruit - an Asian favorite that can run up to 60 pounds for a single fruit - to the jaboticaba, a Brazilian import that forms its grapelike fruit on the trunk. Canistel, sapodilla, atemoya, cherimoya, persimmon, white sapote, grumichama, dragonfruit - the list goes on and on. There is a fruit for every situation, from balcony container to multiple-acre grove.

Most fruit trees are much easier to grow than garden annuals, but a little information goes a long way. For most species it's well worth the cost to obtain a grafted tree at a club sale or a local nursery. Grafted trees produce top-quality fruit in as little as a year or two, while a tree grown from seed may take a decade and then produce only mediocre fruit. Selection of varieties with the right characteristics for your needs will bring many benefits.

Fruit fanciers have also formed several local non-profit clubs that support “dooryard” (non-commercial) growers. These clubs feature monthly meetings with expert speakers, plant exchanges, and fruit tasting, as well as trips to botanical gardens and fruit festivals, all supported by funds raised by annual fruit tree sales:

Besides the local clubs, there are many other resources. The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) website is packed with information for Florida growers, and organizations such as the Tropical Research & Education Center and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens provide even more.

Picture your backyard with a beautiful tree covered with delicious mangos or avocados. Here in Florida, it's a lot easier than growing a tomato, and local resources can provide whatever help may be needed. They say the best time to plant a fruit tree is ten years ago, and the second-best is now!