Growing Coconuts Outside the Tropics

South_FL_Food_Forest_Coconuts

Growing coconuts outside the tropics? How can this be possible?

After all, we all know that coconuts can’t take frosts.

If you drive on I-95 through my home state of Florida, it’s readily obvious where the coconut palms start. It’s like a line you cross somewhere a little north of Palm Beach… and then there they are.

Growing coconuts outside the tropics - is it possible?Florida isn’t a tropical state for the most part. It’s close, but not quite. North of the southern tip of the state, with the exception of a few sheltered areas, the coconuts disappear.

On my north Florida homestead a bit south of Gainesville, it was impossible to grow coconut palms. The overnight lows would sometimes hit the teens. On one night, I measured a low of 12F. That’s 20 degrees below weather that can kill a coconut palm.

So I did some thinking about coconut palms and the way they grow. First, they need warmth year-round – or at least protection from freezing weather – and they need space to reach maturity.

Let’s see how this could possibly be done.

Growing Coconuts in a Greenhouse

 

A greenhouse is the logical option for growing coconuts outside the tropics, right?

Sure… but do you have any idea how tall coconut palms can get?

The full-sized varieties can almost hit 100′, so that’s obviously not going to work.

Fortunately, there are dwarf varieties of coconut palms that will bear fruit at around 8′ tall and only get perhaps to 20′.

“But wait,” you say, “that’s TOO tall for a backyard greenhouse!”

Correct.

My favorite inexpensive greenhouse has 9′ clearance in the middle. Let’s just say we’re growing in one that has an 8′ roof. That’s pretty normal for a backyard greenhouse.

So the only place to go… is down.

Dig a pit beneath the greenhouse and put the greenhouse over the top of it. This will gain you another 6′ of headspace.

Like this:

Growing_Palms_Outside_Tropics_1

“But wait… that’s just a little baby coconut palm in the picture you drew, David The Good! And the complete height is only 14′, which is better than 8’… but still, you said the coconut palm could get up to 20′ tall!”

Very good objection – but think about it further. Have you ever seen pictures of coconut palms growing sideways along the shoreline?

Pictures like this?

Coconut_Palms_Postcard

Coconuts have the ability to be blown sideways, then recover, bend upwards and keep growing.

What if we used that ability to our advantage?

What if one planted a coconut palm in a large pot at one end of the greenhouse, then let it grow until it almost hit the ceiling, then tipped it over, like this:

Growing_Palms_Outside_Tropics_2

“No! It looks dead!”

It’ll be fine – don’t worry. It looks sad now, but wait!

When you lay the coconut palm on its side, I’d also put a couple of blocks beneath the trunk to support it, which also would make it into a sitting bench for one side of your greenhouse.

In a short period of time, the coconut tree is going to start growing upwards again, like this:

Growing_Palms_Outside_Tropics_3

Now your greenhouse coconut palm tree can hit its full, productive size without knocking the top off its shelter… and you could potentially produce your own coconuts far from the sunny tropics.

Further Thoughts And Possibilities

 

Since I haven’t tested this idea, I can’t say for sure if it will work. My gut says it will, judging by what I’ve seen of coconut palms as well as the fact that I’ve seen a pit greenhouse like the one in the drawings. It hosted jackfruit, starfruit, miracle fruit and other completely tropical species despite the fact that it was located in a cold part of Florida at least 3-4 hours from where those species can survive.

If you live much further north, you would have to keep the greenhouse heated. Barrels of water work here in North Florida but I’m sure they won’t work in places with extended periods of below-freezing weather. Up in Tennessee you’d likely have to have a double-insulated greenhouse with a heater. In Minnesota, you’d have to own a power company to keep it warm enough.

That said, for those of us that can’t stop experimenting, the pit greenhouse idea opens up a lot of possibilities for growing encapsulated mini food forests with productive species hailing from regions much further south than our own. In South Carolina you could grow citrus trees this way. In Canada you could grow Japanese persimmons.

The possibilities are fascinating!

61gsQ4yJIWL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_I planned to eventually build a greenhouse like this and grow at least a couple of coconut palms in it just for fun… but now that I’m moving further south it’s not going to happen.

Other possibilities for growing coconuts outside the tropics and for growing tropical plants in regions where they’re not “supposed” to grow are discussed in the fascinating book Palms Won’t Grow Here and Other Myths by David A. Francko.

Though the book is focused on ornamental species, the ideas Francko unlocks are worth the price of admission. Actually, I should invite him to join me on The Survival Gardener Podcast. The man has done amazing things and it’s fun to hear about just how crazy you can get with pushing growing zones.

So – anyone up for the challenge of growing coconut palms in a temperate climate? Pick up the torch and make it happen – I’m dying to know if the idea will work. Tell me if you pull it off.

 

*Coconut postcard image courtesy of the Boston Public Library. Creative commons license.

David-the-good-books-revised

Growing Citrus In Georgia

KeyLimeEspalier

I know… Georgia isn’t a place you think about when someone mentions growing citrus, but I have a feeling we’re going to pull it off.

How so?

I’m using the Key Lime trick. Remember this tree?

That tree is now huge. In fact, I really need to post an updated image – the thing is loaded with Key limes right now and I don’t even cover it.
Since it worked so well with a Key lime tree, which is a true USDA Zone 10 citrus, I thought to myself, “Hey, self. What if you tried planting a cold-hardier Zone 9 citrus tree right up against the south wall of a house in USDA Zone 8 Georgia? If it worked, you’d be actually be growing citrus in Georgia! GEORGIA!”
So I did:
growing citrus in georgia with a south wall
That’s a young kumquat tree. Kumquats are one of the hardier citrus species – and I got it on sale at Lowes World for $14.00. If the experiment fails, that’s not a huge loss.
So – if I do manage to grow citrus in Georgia? You’ll be hearing about it here!
My main worry is that the ground will be too cold and mucky in the winter, since the tree is planted in clay. Still, I give this puppy a better than 50% chance of survival since it’s right flat against a south wall and it’s in front of a window that will be leaking heat from the house on cold nights. If my sister manages to cover it, that chance goes up (in my mind) to a 75% chance or better.
We shall see. The first couple of years are the riskiest since the tree is so small.
If you live in Georgia or another Zone 8 state, try the same trick and let me know how it goes. For science!
UPDATE: To see my south wall tropical gardening system outside the tropics, check out this video.

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The Power of a Gardening Microclimate: Peaches in Paris

montreuilpeaches

One of the members of Permies.com posted this fascinating article last week:

Peaches grown right here in Paris? Believe it or not, centuries ago, Paris became home to a thriving peach farming industry that produced up to 17 million fruits a year– and even today, a little-known community of cultivators are still growing them in the very same orchards.
a gardening microclimate allows this peach to thrive
Established during the seventeenth century, in a prominent neighbourhood of the eastern edge of Paris known as Montreuil, a 300 hectare maze walls and agricultural plots provided a unique and unlikely microclimate for the fruit, normally suited for cultivation in warmer areas such as France’s Mediterranean coast.
The peculiar architecture, known as “Murs à pêches”, wall for peaches,
served to protect peach trees planted near the walls and adapt them to a much colder environment than the fruit is typically used to (READ THE REST)
See all the walls? This is how I grow Key Limes here in N. Florida. They make a perfect gardening microclimate. Here’s a video I created on my tropical south wall garden:

The “peach walls” idea requires a lot of infrastructure, certainly, but it does make you think, doesn’t it? This book is quite helpful in thinking through some of the microclimate gardening possibilities:

Imagine reclaiming an old industrial space and creating an orchard! The crumbling walls of a Detroit factory could be used as gardening microclimates to grow nectarines… the south-facing sides of a New York bridge could shelter plums… or perhaps we could tear down the banks in Florida and plant the ruins with starfruit and papaya.

Grand dreams aside, there’s likely a space on your property that will support species that don’t normally thrive in your region. Your job is to find it. And plant something!
David-the-good-books-revised

August Natural Awakenings article: Growing tropical plants out of their normal range

Papaya4web
Ever wish you could pull off growing a tree or plant that only grows further south? If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that’s a passion of mine.

In my latest article for Natural Awakenings magazine, I go further in depth on how I do it:

http://issuu.com/gonaturalawakenings/docs/august2013/27?e=0

As a side note, I went to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens for my birthday last month and came across a white orchid tree growing outdoors without protection. From everything I’ve ever read or been told, it’s impossible to grow those this far north… but we’re still close to their range, so somebody decided to try – and it worked.

You really don’t know if something is truly impossible until you give it a go yourself. And if you fail, try, try again.

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You can’t grow that here! You can’t do that! It won’t work!

Papaya4web

I laugh when people tell me one of my gardening ideas is impossible. Sure… some things are almost impossible. For instance, it would be really hard to grow Bing cherries here. Not totally impossible – but really hard. (To pull it off, you’d need a walk-in freezer, some shade cloth, a good timer, a very large pot and a lot of time on your hands. But I digress…)

I’ve heard this is too far north to grow good cassava. WRONG
I’ve been told that many seeds won’t grow into good fruit trees. WRONG
I’ve learned from experts not to compost meat, paper, etc. WRONG

Anyhow – you get the idea. Just because it’s supposedly impossible doesn’t mean you can’t pull it off. My experiments with microclimates have been very informative. I learned exactly how far out from my south wall I could plant zone 10 species before the frost claimed them (about 18″). I’m now growing tropical plants without cover outside in North Florida… thanks to the thermal mass of my house.

My experiments with planting corn directly into ruts cut in my lawn were a complete failure. But I learned from it. Now I’ve started my new “melon pit” experiments.

I started about 50 peaches from pits I took from the fruit of a Tropic Beauty tree and planted them in pots and around my yard. Will they live without the all-important “Nema-guard” rootstock? We’ll find out. (UPDATE: The answer is YES)

Look – the key to growing is constant experimentation and observation. Think like a scientist. Plant multiple varieties in multiple places at multiple times of the year for multiple different years. What worked? What didn’t?

Would you believe this? I have a tropical papaya seedling growing in my front-yard food forest. It’s seen multiple frosts down into the 20s and doesn’t show a touch of damage. Meanwhile, I have other large trees out back that have lost their entire tops and even had their trunks turn to mush. Why is that? Genetics? Microclimate? Canopy cover? I don’t know yet… but I’ll see if it stays alive and what happens this next year. If it fruits and keeps living, I’ll plant the seeds and see if they’ve inherited some cold hardiness.
If I had followed the standard advice, I would’ve never planted papayas
at all. YOU CAN’T GROW THEM HERE!

I’ve seen tropical avocados, papaya, guava and mangoes growing in a miniature food forest in Polk County. It freezes there and these plants don’t die. Because they’re tight together and tended by an old missionary who I believe has some sort of special favor from God… they live and fruit. THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!

Remember the rules. Go ahead and repeat them to yourself until they’re meaningless. Then laugh and go throw more seeds around. Do something impossible. The rules can be bent… nature is resilient… and you never know until you try… sometimes many times.

David-the-good-books-revised