While digging turnips in my early garden with my 2-going-on-20 granddaughter, Riley Rose, I was bombarded with questions.
“Grammy, how did these leaves get here?”
“Grammy, are these the greens we eat?”
“Grammy, why don’t you grow apples?”
As I patiently explained how my garden grows, her last question made me wonder … Can I grow apples in Florida?
Being an Ohio girl, I always have taken the fragrant springtime blooms and fall fruits for granted. Back home, those snow-white fields seemed to stretch for miles, heralding the crunchy red delicacy as their promise of things to come.
When I moved to the Florida Panhandle nine years ago, I experienced gardening in a very different light. I was not used to the diverse growing seasons, the intense humidity, torrential rains, drought or the BUGS. I quickly adjusted, however, with the help of friends and how-to books.
Even though I missed the apple blossoms and their bounty fresh from the grove, I never gave growing apples, or other “Northern” fruits, in Florida a second thought until my granddaughter so innocently asked the right question. As they say, “Out of the mouths of babes.”
Know Your Zone
Not one to let moss grow on a gardening challenge, I immediately began researching fruit trees, berry bushes and other traditional cold-weather fruits that could be grown in our area.
Determining the plant hardiness zone for the region is the first step in considering what will not only grow but also flourish in our region. Because the Panhandle is in Zone 8, according to the Plant Hardiness Zone Map, I scoured online resources, a huge stack of gardening catalogs and my library of reference books with that number in mind. Since apples were the primary reason for beginning this quest, I first focused on them.
Although there were many varieties listed as capable of growing in our area, I found only two that extended into Zone 9. They are considered antique, having been cultivated since the 19th century. Both carry the moniker “perfect for Southern gardens,” which piqued my interest.
With a fruit in the medium-to-large category, the Chenango strawberry apple sounds scrumptious. Stark Bro’s catalog asks the question, “Are you eating an apple or strawberries?” I think I will have to plant this one on my property. It just sounds too good to be true.
Cinnamon-spice apples can be grown as far south as Zone 10, which delves clear down south to the Florida Keys. These apples burst with cinnamon flavor when you take a bite. Fortunately these two Zone 9 beauties are capable of pollinating one another.
Don’t forget about cross-pollination, which is necessary if producing fruit is your objective. Trees must be planted within one-quarter mile of one another in order to provide the needed results. Also, they must be planted in well-drained soil, rich with composted matter in an area that gets six to eight hours of sun daily.
And, don’t forget the BUGS. A variety of chemical and natural sprays saturate the market. Make sure to look for an all-purpose deterrent, which takes care of insects and diseases at the same time.
Other garden helpers that will speed you on your way to a bountiful harvest include tree guards and limb spreaders. Guards will protect delicate fruit trees from rabbits, mice and deer, all of which love fruit-tree bark. Limb spreaders are true to the name, spreading the limbs so more light and air gets through, providing earlier and bigger fruit.
While stocking up on the necessities to start your mini-orchard, don’t forget the fertilizer. Orchards love nitrogen. Find a high-nitrogen-content fertilizer and you will be amazed. While you’re at it, don’t forget to give a shot of this soil fixative to your shrubs, ornamentals and other plants. Nitrogen works to keep everything green and healthy.
Fruit trees require pruning – that is a given. If the thought of cutting up your apple trees concerns you, check out the University of Florida Extension Service, which can be an invaluable source of information, as can your local extension agent. Visit edis.ifas.ufl.edu/MG345 for a primer on pruning and training deciduous fruit trees.
Other ‘Unforbidden’ Fruits
Naturally, I stumbled across other non-citrus-variety fruits and berries as I read about apples. Some, I am sure you will be familiar with; others, probably not. So I’ll share what I learned.
If peaches appeal to your palate, you have to grow the Burbank July Elberta peach, which was created by Luther Burbank (1849-1926), the world-renowned horticulturist who gave us the Russet Burbank potato and the Shasta daisy.
Is there a gourmet in your midst? Then check out these unusual offerings.
Thinking about growing Asian pears? Try Hosui. It is blight-resistant and self-pollinating, although horticulturists recommend using New Century, another Asian variety, to speed the process. Hosui has a slightly higher acid content than most pears, which adds tang to its taste. New Century is so sweet, it is ideal for salads and snacking.
Or maybe your taste runs to the truly unusual. Try Van Deman Fruiting Quince. This easy-to-grow dwarf tree produces stunning white blooms, followed by waxy-yellow, oblong fruit. This is another Luther Burbank creation that is best in jams, jellies and for baking – think pie.
Then there are persimmons. Both the Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro and Tanenashi are sweet, plump seedless delights. For a truly Southern-adapted fruit, capable of growing in Zones 6-9, try these curious, bountiful Orientals.
Grapes, you say? The premier red variety is the seedless Flame. Ideal for snacking or in salads, these are the ones you buy in the grocery store, but they are undeniably better when allowed to vine-ripen.
Kiwis are a favorite in my household. If your family enjoys them as much as mine, why not try the Issai Hardy Kiwi? With its thin, smooth skin, 20-percent natural sugar and eight times more Vitamin C than oranges, choosing it will make you a hit with your brood for years to come. Vines produce up to 100 pounds of fruit each year.
As for berries, I found two Panhandle-friendly ones that sound downright mouthwatering. Loganberry, promoted as “possibly the best berry ever!” by nurseries, is a naturally occurring cross between red raspberries and blackberries. If allowed to ripen on the bush, they are sweet enough to pop right into your mouth.
Tulameen red raspberry, from British Columbia, produces fruits for up to 50 days. While Tulameen is a good choice for jams and pies, it is excellent for fresh eating, too.
As you plan your home orchard, grape arbor or berry bog, remember that most fruit trees take a minimum of two to three years to set fruit, so don’t be discouraged. The wait will be worth the effort.
In fact, I have ordered the Chenango strawberry and Cinnamon spice apples, as well as the kiwi and both berries for my little slice of the planet. I already can hear the inevitable Riley Rose questions: “Grammy, where did you get the trees?” “Grammy, where are leaves?” “Grammy, when will the apples get here?”