A Tale of Two Climates


My old home town in North Florida is quite chilly right now:


Whereas here in the tropics, winter is much more pleasant:


If you’d like your tropical plants to live through colder weather – or if you’d like to grow warmer climate fruit in colder climates, my book Push the Zone: The Good Guide to Growing Tropical Plants Beyond the Tropics is for you.

If the cold trend continues – which I believe it will – a lot of people will find it useful.


North Florida Coffee


I’ve written on growing coffee in North Florida before, and on my survival plant profile for coffee, Kakunka relates his own experience in the same area:

I’m not the guy you met at Kanapaha, but I do live in the area, I’ve been growing coffee and tea here for a number of years. . . I try not to bring anything in the house, unless absolutely necessary . . . Extended periods of cold or super hard freezes. I cover up around freezing and a bit below. Occasionally, I’ll get some scorching from the cold. Of course, living next to a lake helps the microclimate. Your observations about seed are fairly accurate, plant seeds from fresh ripe berries, after separating the twin seeds from the cherry. I’ve never rooted a plant, but apparently that’s not an uncommon technique. The temperatures here in the summer are probably not ideal, and you definitely don’t want sun on your plants all day here. They are, however, fairly forgiving plants so long as you don’t let them freeze, drown, or desiccate.


My observations are fairly accurate? He obviously spelled “frighteningly” wrong.

The sun is an issue. My Coffea arabica plant hated too much direct sun and would scorch in the summer heat. It’s brutal in North Florida summers.

The south wall method for zone-pushing I describe in Push the Zone keeps them alive through the winter, though – with no protection whatsoever except the wonderful thermal mass of a wall.

That said, the growing conditions for coffee just aren’t that great in Florida overall. I got into a big discussion with Kona coffee grower Gary Strawn over that topic and he really lays out the difficulty in getting a solid crop even in ideal conditions, let alone sub-optimal ones.


Speaking of ideal conditions, right now it’s about 74 degrees outside and sunny. Just how I like to spend Christmas vacation.

Last year I was harvesting coffee with Rachel around this time of year.

I need to go check on those trees again and see if there’s anything to pick.

But for now, it’s time to eat bacon and eggs, then hit the beach.


More Small Farm Advice


Brad shares some suggestions on my “Small Farm Advice” post:


“I would say plant in tiers. Everybody recommends fruit and nut trees but few think of that coupled with bushes. I tend to think of food in paradigms of Fruit/nut trees, bushes, perennials, and annuals in those four categories. Don’t sell out in any one of them unless your an expert at it. Become an expert in at least one thing if not two but don’t sell out on it. EX look at all the huge apple orchards and that is all they have. Why not plant 10 pecans where your horse cattle graze, chickens around them, then move to another pen when pecans drop. Blueberries, currants, gooseberry, and blackberries where your at. I would get two good varieties of corn, one for dent and grits/scratch for chickens the other for fresh eating and plant on opposite sides of your property. Throw in a couple of bee hives when you generate enough capital. Then I would rotate vegetables in 1/4- 1/2 acre parcels “if I had 6 acres” like my grandfather did. Cover crop for three/four years that way your planing on soil only once very 4-5 years. You wouldn’t believe the yields, quality, etc. vs mass planing and systemic fertilizer. Move a mobile chicken coop after tilling under cover crop 6-12 months before your next 1/4-1/2 acre planting. I find 1/4 acre to 1/2 are far easier to manage or pick by hand, don’t stand out much, are better for fresh market picking, and are easier for pest management. Hope some of the ideas help.”


Good ideas. What I’ve also found is that if you start with a crazy variety of things and try almost everything, you’ll soon start to realize what works and what doesn’t.

We grew raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries before discovering that mulberries blew all the competition away in productivity and ease of care.

We also discovered that bees, as much as we loved keeping them, were not profitable for us.

And that guinea fowl were incredibly loud and annoying.

You don’t know until you try. So get out there and try!


Papaya Fruit Fly on Your Papaya Tree? Here’s What to Do!


Michael spotted a papaya fruit fly (AKA papaya wasp) on a green papaya and has well-founded concern for his fruit:

“Quick question about papaya wasps. I was checking out my plants this past weekend and spied what I believe was one of the adults on an immature fruit. How worried should I be? We live in Hillsborough County in the Forest Hills area. The cold is more tempered in this area due to several large lakes nearby, so I’m not worried about the plants freezing, but I am a little worried about the wasps now. I haven’t seen them before on my trees.”

The Strange Papaya Fruit Fly

Though they look like wasps, the papaya wasp is actually the papaya fruit fly. They don’t look like any fruit fly you’ve ever seen, however.

papaya fruit fly papaya wasp

Illustration from the Division of Plant Industry

You can see why they’re often called the “papaya wasp.”

They’re really an attractive insect for such a pain-in-the-neck pest.

Michael is correct to be concerned – these are a huge problem for papaya growers.

Why is it after green papaya?

If you see a papaya fruit fly near your immature fruit, chances are that fruit is going to be filled with maggots when ripe.

As UF states in an article on the papaya fruit fly:

“The female is capable of producing 100 or more eggs. The female fruit fly oviposits in the green immature fruit by thrusting her ovipositor through the flesh of the fruit. She then deposits a group of 10 or more long, slender eggs in the papaya’s central cavity where the young larvae feed on developing seeds and the interior parts of the fruit. As the larvae mature, they eat their way out of the fruit, drop to the ground beneath the plant, and pupate just below the soil surface. Flies emerge in about two to six weeks, depending upon humidity and temperature of the soil.

Eggs are usually laid in small fruit, about two to three inches in diameter, but they may be deposited in smaller or larger fruit. However, unripe papaya juice is fatal to the larvae so the fruit must be ripe before the larvae begin to eat their way out of the inner cavity. Eggs hatch approximately 12 days after oviposition and larval development in the fruit lasts about 15 to 16 days.”

In the southern part of the state and warmer regions along the coast, the papaya fruit fly is a serious pest. I never had trouble with them in the Ocala/Gainesville area due to the freezes, but in The Great South Florida Food Forest Project they are a repeating problem.

I remember the first time I picked a beautiful ripe papaya for mom and opened it up to find it squirming with papaya fruit fly maggots.


Papaya Fruit Fly Control

Though you could probably hire a crop-duster, a better approach is to manage papaya fruit flies without pesticides by being pro-active.

My advice: keep an eye on those fruit. If any fall off, burn or bury them deeply. If they ripen, be prepared for a maggot fest – and again, don’t just compost the fruit or toss it somewhere – kill those maggots! Sanitation is key to papaya fruit fly control. The last thing you want is hundreds more of them buzzing around your neighborhood.

If you have very young fruit you can bag them to prevent infection. For fruit that are already larger, just watch them. It’s probably too late to bag.

Good luck. I’m sorry they found you. Keep a close eye on your trees, destroy infected fruit without prejudice and bag the little ones – and pray these obnoxious pests don’t come back.


Maintenance Pruning of Mulberry Trees


Karen asks about maintenance pruning on mulberry trees:

“Hi David, Love your site!

I inherited my mom’s place in Citrus County Fl. She let her mulberry grow out of control and fruit really, so when I moved in August 2016, I wanted to salvage the tree if I could. Read that I could severely prune it to a height that I could reach and I did…holding my breath! The article said that severe pruning like that might delay fruiting for a season…BUT no! GOD had other plans. It fruited the most delicious and abundant (enough for me) crop I have ever had the privilege to eat!
So now this year I am wondering when to lob off the skinny branches. In July was I supposed to “pollard” to six leaves…I didn’t look up what that means…but I didn’t know to do it. It actually tried to put out fruit this week …weakly. But as you can see I cut the main trunk to leave the branches I could reach. And just now tied down 4 more limbs to reach next year… I know I should not prune limbs that are real low. But when to prune the ones that are reaching to heaven; like what happened to the original tree…very quickly became a giant!
I read some of your articles on the subject and want to grow a whole lot more trees!”
Mulberry-1 Mulberry-2
What a mess! Trees do what they want, don’t they? I’ve pruned back fruit trees before and been rather horrified by the insane amount of re-growth.
Fortunately, mulberries are very forgiving.
Check these out:

Those trees were chainsawed to the ground multiple times, then they came back and fruited.
Unlike many fruit trees which will skip making fruit after a pruning, mulberries are often stimulated to make fruit after a pruning. New growth regularly arrives with new berries.
Here’s my advice for Karen’s mulberry tree pruning problems.

Wait Until Dormancy and Assess

Mulberry trees go to sleep in the winter and drop their leaves. the form of a tree without leaves is much easier to assess than one laded with leaves.
Once you see how all the branches are growing, it’s easier to picture a better shape you can shoot for.

Cut and Bend

In North Florida I usually did my pruning in January/early February before my fruit trees awakened from their winter dormancy.
I would pick an uneven number of branches to save, then cut the rest. Cut weak branches, super-skinny branches and crossing branches to open up the space somewhat. Leave perhaps 5 – 7 decent branches behind to spread out and become the new canopy.
With peaches you’d normally leave 3, but mulberries will bear a lot of fruit and each branch is a potential source of berries.
Once I have my new leaders, I bend them sideways and tie cinderblocks to them to “festoon” them. I noted the cinderblock in one of your photos and wondered if you were already pursuing this tack.
Here’s a mulberry I pruned and tied in this fashion:
And a peach tree I festooned similarly:
I like those long sideways branches. They produce more fruit than branches that head straight up, plus they are easier to pick.
Eventually, the branches harden up at the angle they are bent, then you can remove the cinderblocks – or you can pull them farther down and re-tie. I would take a few of your big branches and bend them out away from the large sideways branches you already have growing. That should add some balance to the shape.
Know that the tree will send up new shoots straight off the top of the bent branches. You can prune some of those, bend them, or just ignore them as you wish. Mulberries can be shaped up at any point during the year, though I leave severe pruning for winter.
Don’t worry too much – it’s hard to make a mulberry unproductive.

Composting Storm Debris: 4 Easy Methods


TJ asks about composting storm debris:

“I’ve got a lot of debris from the storm still, plus I’ll be cutting down some trees soon. What do you think is the best way to avoid exporting those nutrients and to reincorporate them into the soil? I was thinking on doing some hugelkultur beds, but I’ve never done one and might have too much material. Any recommendations on the hugel beds and other ways to make use of these material?”

Yes – I certainly have some suggestions.

Method #1 for Composting Storm Debris: Throw it on the Ground

In Chapter 11 of Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting I wrote:

“My dad and I started a food forest in his shady and infertile south Florida backyard. One weekend we piled up palm tree trunks, branches, logs, hedge trimmings, leaves, grass clippings and whatever else the neighbors were throwing out. The resulting stack of biomass was probably two feet tall and covered over a hundred square feet. In the middle and around the edges we planted fruit trees and edible perennials. Within a couple of months you could dig into the pile and find rich black soil, worms, and a wide variety of insects working together to rapidly convert that pile of “waste” into soil.”

This was what that mass of plant debris did:


Just piling up all the trunks and leaves and debris will eventually give you rich results.

Stack them someplace out of the way or put them in rough piles right around trees or anywhere.

This pile broke down wonderfully in a little more than a year.


When the sticks got brittle, I stomped on them. Just don’t do that if you’re in poisonous snake country.

Method #2 for Composting Storm Debris: Use Logs for Boundaries

I’ve also taken felled trees and chunks of trunk and used them to delineate paths in food forests.

growing sweet potatoes in the food forest


It’s not always the prettiest method, but those hunks of logs keep the ground moist beneath them, harbor a variety of useful species, plus host fungi, which are an integral part of forest life.


A year after throwing down piles of tree trunks and shredded tree company mulch, I was so amazed to see the many varieties of mushrooms which appeared that I did a post with 39 pictures documenting them.

Method #3 for Composting Storm Debris: Hugelkultur

TJ also asked about hugelkultur as a method for composting storm debris.

I must confess, I have never built a proper hugelkultur bed. I know it’s one of those super-popular things that permaculture gardeners do but I haven’t done one.

I did bury tree chunks and plant a jaboticaba on top:

composting storm debris

That led to sinking soil and the need to replant the tree within a year.

I honestly don’t know how hugelkultur beds will work in Florida overall. Organic material deteriorates at a frightening rate and sandy soil is likely to wash away from the top of the mounds. It’s probably worth building one as an experiment but I wouldn’t bet heavily on a method which comes from a cold climate with clay soils.

And hugelkultur may not even be what many think it is.

As Jack Spirko writes in a very interesting article for Permaculture News:

“The purpose of this mound is twofold.

1. Break down organic matter and build soil

2. Grow annual production while number one happens and/or growing short term perennials and nurse trees for later planting in other locations.

How do I know this? When I met Sepp in Montana in 2012 and watched him build about 4 linear kilometers of hugels, he told me so and I believed him.

I hear cries of heresy and blasphemy, but I am just telling you the way this system is actually used successfully. So strap in if you are upset now, indeed it gets worse from here. The big shocker is what happens next. One of them you may have a hard time believing…

1. The mounds over time sort of flatten and are left. At this point, the succession proceeds into long term perennial production. The key though is that a few seasons of annual cropping and short term perennials are used first. Generally in this case they remain bush, shrub, small tree, herbaceous and annual crop producers.

2. More often than above, gasp! The mound is at some point spread out and full on perennial systems are established or even grazing systems are boosted. This can produce astounding amounts of soil, the value of which if trucked in would be measured in 10’s of thousands of dollars per acre.

The primary purpose of hugels is building soil, production is of secondary concern. Getting production out of hugels makes the method practical but none the less, still secondary to the original intent. Very few edicts to the concept are even aware of why Sepp Holzer did hugels in the first place. Quite simply it was done because he had a ton of low value trees around and removing them was more costly than their value.”

If the primary purpose is building soil, the same can be done with much less labor than digging mounds requires. Throw the material in big piles and let it rot, then later spread it around. Florida’s hot and humid climate chews through most fallen trees in a couple of years, turning them into crumbly humus. If you build mounds, they are going to sink. Fast.

Method #4 for Composting Storm Debris: Biochar

Biochar is just charcoal making.

Charcoal has the capacity to hold onto nutrition and potentially act like humus in the ground. In sandy soils with high leaching, this is powerful. Humus disappears very quickly in Florida, and less quickly in colder climates, but charcoal is practically immortal.

I now add it to many of my compost piles for that very reason:


It will sit in the pile and soak up the good stuff, then later be spread around my gardens and trees.

If you have a lot of storm debris, just do something like this:

Then use that charcoal everywhere. Just don’t burn the trees into nothing – be sure you quench the fire and get the charcoal, as most of the good material will leave your property for the atmosphere if you let the fire go too long.

So – to answer the question “what’s the best method for composting storm debris?”

Any way that keeps the material on your land. Don’t give in to the convenience of letting the county take it or just burning it to ashes.

Trees are rich in carbon and other minerals that they’ve produced and mined from the soil, sometimes for generations. Don’t waste them. Even making islands of trunk chunks, leaves and branches around your fruit trees will greatly benefit the trees.

As has been said before “forests grow on the remains of forests.”

Use fallen trees to feed living ones and you’ll be surprised how they respond.


How Long Does a Pawpaw Tree Take to Produce Fruit from Seed?


Maria has questions about how long it takes a pawpaw tree to produce fruit from seed (note that she is asking about Asimina triloba, not the tropical “pawpaw” Carica papaya):

“I read with interest how to grow pawpaw from seeds. Nowhere is mentioned how long does it take to produce fruit. I live in southern Ontario and don’t know any place with pawpaw fruit, we never eat it either. Local nursery is selling a plant about 3 ft tall ($40), must be 2 to 3 years old. They told me it will take another 6 to 10 years to produce fruit. We may not be around in 10 years therefore I was reluctant to buy the plant. The plant is common pawpaw and they suggested to get another variety from somewhere else as 2 trees are need it. It’s disappointing that knowledge of such a big nursery is so limited to a fruit tree common to southern Ontario. Should I buy the plant and when it blooms (how many years?) try to cross pollinate as suggested in your article. Can I pollinate from bloom to bloom or I need another tree?”

Great questions, Maria.

So How Long Does it Take for a Seedling PawPaw Tree to Bear Fruit?

According to a presentation by Patrick Byers at the University of Missouri:

“Seedling trees take longer to come into production (5 – 7 years) than grafted trees (3 – 4 years).”
I have read in multiple locations that a seedling pawpaw will bear fruit in 4 – 8 years, which lines up pretty closely with Byers’ 5 – 7 years. 10 years would be quite long.
Grafted trees already think they’re a mature specimen, so if you want to take some of the time off your wait for fruit, plus take the guesswork out of what kind of fruit the tree will bear – buy a grafted tree. I enjoy growing pawpaws from seed, as I share in my popular how-to post here, but if you have a source for improved pawpaw tree varieties, go for it.

Getting Your PawPaw to Fruit Faster

As pawpaw trees usually start to bear fruit at around 6′ in height, if you want a pawpaw to fruit faster, take better care of it. This goes for most fruit trees. Regular water, feeding, mulching – these are what get them established and growing.
For pollination, you should really have two pawpaw trees. It’s even better to plant three as it gives you a little redundancy in case you lose one. Some pawpaw trees can pollinate themselves from pollen from one flower to the next on the same tree; however, you cannot count on this tendency.
You can hand-pollinate pawpaw trees. I have not done it myself as the local insects did a fine job for me. The California Rare Fruit Growers have a very good guide to growing pawpaws and in it they cover pollination:

“Poor pollination has always plagued the pawpaw in nature, and the problem has followed them into domestication. Pawpaw flowers are perfect, in that they have both male and female reproduction parts, but they are not self-pollinating. The flowers are also protogynaus, i.e., the female stigma matures and is no longer receptive when the male pollen is shed. In addition pawpaws are self-incompatible, requiring cross pollination from another unrelated pawpaw tree.Bees show no interest in pawpaw flowers. The task of pollenization is left to unenthusiastic species of flies and beetles. A better solution for the home gardener is to hand pollinate, using a small, soft artist’s brush to transfer pollen to the stigma. Pollen is ripe for gathering when the ball of anthers is brownish in color, loose and friable. Pollen grains should appear as small beige-colored particles on the brush hairs. The stigma is receptive when the tips of the pistils are green, glossy and sticky, and the anther ball is firm and greenish to light yellow in color.”

I had a Florida pawpaw variety (Asimina parviflora) bloom and set fruit at the young age of three, but that isn’t all that common for the common pawpaw.

If you want to “create your own luck,” get a few grafted trees, take great care of them and throw in a few more seedling trees at the same time. The trees don’t take up a lot of space and can fit in around larger trees such as oak and hickory due to their shade tolerance.
Good luck – may you get much fruit!
*Original image at top by Wendell Smith. Creative Commons license.

Getting Papaya To Ripen Before Frost?


Kate from Chiefland writes:

“I have grown huge papaya trees, this year the fruit came very early and now I have at least two dozen fruit, the largest almost 10 inches. My fear is (like many times before) the fruit will not ripen on the tree before the first frost. One year I had boatloads of huge green papaya that I picked due to frost and they just rotted. My question is are there any tricks I can use to get the fruit to ripen on the tree in the next month/before the first frost?”

Fruiting papaya trees getting hit by frost at just the wrong time? Yeah, I’ve been there.


Note the Christmas lights. That’s an old zone-pushing trick, but even that AND the trees being planted by a south-facing wall was not enough to save the fruit.

Papaya really can’t take the cold. And though they’re fast-growing “trees” and will start fruiting within a year of planting, they often start bearing in the summer and the fruit are still green as the fall comes.

And because they like warm weather and refuse to grow on cool days, their growth and the ripening of fruit slows and even stops in the fall.


And then comes winter – and frosts – and you lose the fruit. The trees will sometimes freeze back and regrow the next year but unless you have a mild winter the next season, you get the same problem again. The trees start to set fruit in summer, then fall comes and they slow down, then they lose their fruit in the winter.

It’s terrible!

I have picked the green papaya and eaten them (and shared some recipes here) but I like the ripe fruit better. Getting that fruit requires some planning, though, and so far as I know you can’t get the trees to ripen their fruit any earlier without keeping them warm in the fall.


There are some tricks that will work for getting papaya to bear out of their range – as you can read here – but you might have to get used to eating green papaya if a frost is on its way and the trees are loaded.

One possibility: if the trees are short enough, put 55-gallon drums of water at their bases before frost events, then cover the tree and the barrel with blankets through the night to trap in the heat. This is a trick I used on delicate trees in the past and got them to carry fruit through outside of their range. If it stays below for freezing for too long it won’t work, but for overnight freezes it works quite well.

Good luck.

Get my book Push the Zone if you want a bunch of other ideas on keeping tropical plants alive outside their “natural” range.



Two Seeds and Lots of Promise


I apologize for the late post today. I had a paperwork issue that needed clearing up this morning, which led to me visiting a hardware store and getting some PVC for a sound isolation booth I’m building, which led to giving one of my farmer neighbors and a pile of produce a ride home after his car died at the end of my road.

Though I was irritated at having to deal with paperwork this morning, it ended up well. Because I helped out my farmer friend, he invited me to have a drink with him at his house. As we were sitting there, he asked if I knew what a couple packages of seeds were – and handed me two little envelopes of seeds he’d been sent. One read “pitanga,” the other, “jaboticaba.”

I’ve been looking for both of these species since moving here. I showed him what they were on my smart phone and told him to plant them fast as they may not keep long in this hot and humid climate. He said he would, then gave me one of each.

Which I brought home with much thanks and planted directly:

I hope at least one of them grow. Both are highly productive and useful small fruits.

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