The Urban Homesteader: A Fruitful New Year
An environmental consultant by trade, Cara Cooper started her garden with citrus and avocado trees plus a few herbs … all the makings of margaritas and guacamole.
Here, she shares the lessons she’s learned as that “party garden” has grown into a full-fledged urban homestead.
While our northern relatives are shivering in the snow, we are happily sipping freshly squeezed orange juice and eating bananas harvested from just outside our front door. I love that our yard, which only four years ago was home to mostly invasive plant species, is now a cornucopia for us (and the birds) year-round.
Starting from scratch, we designed our little piece of paradise to feed us and wildlife by using fruiting trees and native bushes. What began as a desire for a “party garden” (the makings for guacamole and margaritas!) has grown into a landscape lush with tropical fruit and nut trees and berry bushes (I lost count after two dozen varieties).
If you’re looking to create a fruitful landscape – or you’ve recently lost your citrus trees to ‘greening’ and need to start anew – you should know there are plenty of options. In fact, the Tampa Bay area is fairly unique in that we can grow more traditional northern fruit crops (peaches, apples) as well as tropical fruits (mangoes, bananas), depending on specific locations. The north and east sides of the bay are largely in the USDA plant hardiness zone of 9b, meaning winter temperatures are more likely to dip to 25 to 30 degrees. Closer to the warm Gulf waters, most areas are semi-tropical (zone 10a) and suited for more exotic fruit.
In general, your ability to grow fruit is determined by the severity and duration of the cold, since temperate fruit trees such as apples require a certain number of “chilling hours” below 45 degrees to fruit, while tropical plants can freeze to death.
If you live in a warm pocket, consider some of the more unique tropical fruits such as carambola (star fruit), which produces quickly and often after planting, or try key limes for a hearty, productive tree. Where more severe and prolonged winter temperatures are experienced, try pear, apple or peach trees, just look for Florida-specific varieties that have low chilling-hour requirements.
In addition to many online resources, a book I’ve found to be extremely helpful is Florida’s Best Fruiting Plants. And, of course, don’t forget to check with the knowledgeable growers at local nurseries, plant festivals and farmers’ markets for their expertise and advice, as well as locally raised plants.
I will warn you: What starts as an innocent desire for homegrown strawberries can rapidly blossom into a full-blown obsession for more fruiting plants. In fact, you may find yourself asking if you really need that lawn because you’d love to have a small meadow of pineapples or a miniature grove of Meyer Lemons!
FROZEN FRUIT is a great way to use up every last bit of your bounty, but it’s only good after the harvest. Pick the right plants for your location by finding your growing zone at planthardiness.ars.usda.gov, then follow these tips for keeping your fruit trees cozy warm on our coldest days.
Some plant varieties take well to being potted (patio-sized citrus, figs, papaya) so you can move them into a protected area during cold snaps.
Wrap the trunks of larger trees with thick blankets just before dark during freeze warnings, or try stringing lights around the trunks and branches to provide a small amount of heat and a little festivity (large incandescent bulbs are the most effective).
Wait to plant new fruit trees until after the last cold spell of the season, usually in late February. When you do plant, put them in the sunniest and most wind-protected area of your yard.