The Great South Florida Food Forest Project Update, May 2015: Failures and Problems

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Yesterday I took a look at some of the successes we’ve had in The Great South Florida Food Forest Project… today we’ll look at some of the failures and problems.

One thing about Florida sand, particularly down south: it eats organic matter and drinks water like there’s no tomorrow.

That means that without regular applications of new mulch, along with regular irrigation, some plants will struggle or die.

This food forest is low on nitrogen fixers and chop-and-drop plants (you’ll find a lot more info on species and ways to ensure your food forest survives in my Create Your Own Florida Food Forest book). Since I don’t live on site, I can’t stay on top of the maintenance required to make everything really happy. I’ve planted pigeon peas before, only to find out later that none of them germinated. I’ve also planted a few nitrogen fixers and had them disappear into the weeds. Many of the smaller perennial vegetables also kicked the bucket over the last year.

Here’s a list of the plants I added that are now deceased:


RIP:


Cinnamon
Edible-leafed hibiscus (2)
Naranjilla
Okinawa spinach
Saltbush
Sea purslane
Strawberry guava (2) 

 

Other plants, like the Jabuticaba, the fig, the canistel, the papayas and the Monstera are hanging on but not thriving.

Even the 6th Street mulberry, though it isn’t tiny, isn’t as big as I would have expected after two years growth.

It’s setting a few fruit at least:

Unfortunately, it’s not even as tall as me. Yes, it started as a 12″ tree… but usually mulberries grow about 6′ a year. Maybe this year will send it skywards.

My parents (who own this food forest) asked me what I would recommend for keeping things happy and growing.

My answer:

1. Add lots more mulch.
2. Add more water during dry patches.
3. Add more nitrogen and fertility.

Dad put a bunch of rabbit manure around the bases of all the trees this week after I left and watered them all really well. Many of the plants and trees look a bit yellow and stressed. The original layers of organic matter we laid down have mostly disappeared into the ground and been covered by a mess of weeds. There are also problems with Sri Lanka weevils chewing up lots of the leaves. We’re going to have to figure out how to control those or get the trees to outpace them.

acerola cherry in south florida food forest

A ripe acerola cherry

Many of the trees and plants are also draped in strands of silk, though I didn’t see any spiders, mites or caterpillars. Who knows?

Another problem in this food forest is the lack of good understory plants. There are no sweet potatoes or other edible groundcover so the weeds have taken over, along with a weird variety of ornamental landscape plants that wandered in along with some of of loads of yard debris from the neighbors.

Check these interlopers out.

First up, wandering Jew:

And some bell-flowered weeds I can’t identify, plus a caladium:

A spiral ginger:

Rosary peas (more on those here):

And ferns are everywhere:

 

It’s interesting to see what pops up when you don’t mow.

I think the manure and extra water will get things going again – but I definitely need to start planning in more nitrogen-fixers and edible groundcovers along with a more robust vine layer. The African yams I planted seem to have mostly disappeared this year.

Tomorrow I’ll have more pictures and updates.

 

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A four-year-old black mulberry tree

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It’s hard to believe this black mulberry tree was just a sad-looking bare root twig when I popped it in the ground almost exactly four years ago:
black mulberry tree trunk

It’s got at least a six-inch diameter on the trunk now. I love it.

I was actually able to find the original order receipt from Gurney’s nursery in my old e-mails:

That tree is now about 20′ tall, maybe taller.
I don’t recommend Gurney’s Nursery in general. Though they’re large and have a big selection at low prices (when they do sales in particular), the quality on their fruit trees isn’t nearly as high as Peaceful Valley Farm Supply.
Or the quality you’ll find at Florida Food Forests, for that matter.
Anyhow, when I planted this mulberry I was just learning about the tree. This particular specimen (and its Frankenberry sister in the food forest) just doesn’t make as large a fruit, or as much fruit, as I would like to see.

But it did grow big very quickly. It looks like it will be an excellent climbing tree in a few more years. And though the fruit isn’t incredible or as ridiculously profuse as it is on my Illinois Everbearing tree, it’s still delicious and abundant.

I’m collecting better varieties of mulberry in my nursery for sale this new year. Last year I almost sold out of everything, even tiny trees. This year I’ll be propagating a lot more, plus working on getting some root stock going so I can graft some oh-do-difficult-to-root Pakistan Long mulberry trees and sell them. That’s at least a one-year proposition however… so stay tuned.

As for this black mulberry tree… time is a wonderful thing. Put in trees right now and you’ll be peering up at them in just a few years. There’s no time like the present to plant. Get out there and plant!

 

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Festooning Fruit Trees

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I recently watched a film called The Permaculture Orchard. In it, Stephan Sobkowiak demonstrates his method of bending down the branches of apples in order to induce fruiting rather than additional leaf growth.
As opposed to pruning, which stimulates more green growth, festooning fruit trees allows for a tree to be spread out lower to the ground and harvested easily.
Though I have no idea if this will increase the fruit set on mulberry or peach trees, I decided to tie down their branches (after some judicious pruning) so as to allow for easier harvests this spring and summer.
Here’s my Illinois Everbearing mulberry:

Notice the cinderblock weights holding that branch down.

Here’s a shot from another angle:

I selected four main trunks of this multi-trunked specimen then cut out the branches that were too low, crossing, or shooting straight up in the center.
I used military paracord to tie up the branches when I’m festooning fruit trees since it’s light, strong and cheap. To avoid girdling the branches, I wrapped it multiple times around some protecting pieces of old inner tube I secured around the branches needing festooning. You can see the black bands on the trees – those are where the paracord attaches.
With one of my seedling peach trees I took a similar approach; however, I refrained from cutting it, mostly because I’m interested in seeing what a peach tree will do without pruning.
I also pulled a lot of it sideways along a similar plane so the branches won’t shade the garden beds adjacent to this tree. They’re in the foreground, just out of sight.
Over time, the branches should set themselves in this position and allow me to untie the cinderblocks.
I believe this method will work out well for tree growth and fruit accessibility.

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Planting Fruit Trees in Georgia

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Yesterday I showed you the little bean patch I dug; today we’ll look planting fruit trees in Georgia.

Parts of Georgia share some climate similarities with North Florida. My relatives live on the west side of the state in some rough pine land that’s prone to drought. I’d say they’re a pretty solid USDA Growing Zone 8, meaning it’s too far north for citrus (with the exception of trifoliate orange… and maybe kumquat) and it’s too far south for most really good cherries, apples and pears.

Fortunately, I stock a few plants in my nursery that can handle the cold and the heat. I didn’t have any higher chill-hour peach trees (mine are UF selections) and I only had one small pecan tree in stock (you need two types for pollination), so I brought two of my favorite trees: a Japanese persimmon and two Illinois Everbearing mulberries.

 

In the middle of the picture is the persimmon; on the left and right edges are two small mulberries. You can also see the bean bed we dug, marked off by some reclaimed blocks I found at the edge of the yard.

Here’s a close-up of the persimmon in its new home:

Since I didn’t have any mulch or leaves, I cut up some brush and tree limbs that were hanging over the fences from the neighbor’s yards. Beneath that I put a layer of cardboard as weed block. The organic matter of this soil is really low and there’s basically nothing to harvest and use in the yard, other than clippings from the grass.

Fortunately for the trees, there’s also a Starbucks nearby and my youngest sister (whose car I rode up in) is a coffee addict. She picked up a bag of grounds along with her iced coffee (they provide the grounds for free as compost for gardeners: kudos to Starbucks!) and I dumped those around the trees after planting.

Here’s one of the mulberry trees:

a young mulberry tree

Planting fruit trees in Georgia takes a pickaxe!

That’s one of the $12.00-sized trees I sell from my nursery booth on Thursdays. Mulberries grow really quickly, so don’t think this baby is going to stay small for long. My bet is that it will hit 8′ by the end of next year, provided it gets enough water and doesn’t mind the hard ground. The year after that, my nieces and nephew will be eating themselves purple.
Next time I go up, I hope to bring a pair of pecan trees, a fig and perhaps some chestnuts and also see if we can find a local nursery with appropriate varieties of pears, peaches and plums and maybe even some sour cherries. It all depends on how much stuff my dear sister and brother-in-law will let me jam in their yard.
Hehhehheh.
If you have a backyard… why not use it to grow your own organic delicious fruit? Georgia has a wonderful mild climate – you could grow your own food for very little money, plus enjoy looking out your windows at lovely fruit trees.
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The Best Berries for Florida

Berries
We may not be growing the best berries for Florida since we’re testing lots of species right now… but it’s still berry nice here at Econopocalypse Ranch!
Daisy holds a handful of recently picked fruit.

The rabbit eye blueberries have just finished and the blackberries are coming to an end… but the Jamaican cherries are kicking along at a rate of about 6 fruit per day. For one tree, that’s not bad at all.

Of course, I have no idea if it’s going to survive winter here. Also known (like multiple other species) as the “strawberry tree,” Jamaican cherries are a tropical tree. We shall see what happens. I’d really hate to lose it: the fruit taste like a cross between cotton candy and popcorn. Really delicious.

My Illinois everbearing mulberry has also decided to start kicking again with a new crop that should start ripening any day now… and then in another month or so, it’ll be time for Snacky’s Diner to re-open.

For some reason my goumi berries decided not to bear fruit this year. It might be that we’re a bit too far south to get consistent crops. At least the silverthorns bore decently this spring.

On an up note, we’ve got elderberries for the first year here, and they’re doing great.

I do have one northern raspberry plant, too. And it bore me ONE raspberry. Looks like I’ll need to plant 15 to get a handful. Or 1,000 to make jam.

Heh heh.

Seriously… though…

Here are the best berries for Florida (that we’ve found so far)!

 

Mulberry

Blackberries

Surinam Cherries

Mysore Raspberries

Southern Highbush Blueberries

Rabbiteye Bluberries

 

My top favorite is mulberry, hands down, but we’ve had the others grow for us as well. If you love strawberries, they’ll grow here but I find them to be a pain in the neck.

The great thing about gardening: there’s always next year… we’ll fertilize, mulch, cultivate, and see what happens.

UPDATE: For more berries for Florida, pick up a copy of my book!

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The Great South Florida Food Forest Project: June 2013 update

MulberryJune8-2013

As I’ve written before, I’ve got something cool going on down south.

I visited last week and got some new photos. It’s amazing how fast tropical plants grow – everything is looking pretty darn good. I need to get some nitrogen-fixers going, though. Maybe I should mail Dad some pigeon peas…

Check out what’s going on – the 6th Street Mulberry I got from the Edible Plant Project and gave to Dad has almost doubled in size. Crazy.

Below is a look at the food forest from the back fence side. Here you can see Senna alata (with the yellow blooms), Tithonia diversifolia to the left, malanga near the bottom, some cassava, a glimpse of moringa trunk and a bit of banana tree.

 messy south florida food forest

The next shot shows a giant papaya on the top left. I grew that thing from seed. In the lower middle is a chaya plant, also known as “Mexican tree spinach.”

 

And now, take a look at the little grumichama we planted earlier this year. See the sign? That’s so Dad doesn’t forget what it is. He’s not quite the plant nut I am.
And here’s a shot from the house side. Look at that cassava coming along!

 

Next, here’s my little tropical avocado seedling. It’s about 4′ tall now. Not as amazing as Eddy’s, but it’s gonna get there.

Remember my previous story about cutting down the scheffelera tree? The acerola cherry we planted to replace it is doing wonderfully… and it’s bearing fruit already. Dad’s been sharing them with visitors. Look!

And… here’s one last shot for the road. I may not be able to grow the tropical subsistence plot I want up here, but at least I get to play around every few months ago in my parents’ backyard.

Not bad at all. Mom and Dad have already been harvesting fruit, beans and even the occasional self-seeded tomato from this little patch of jungle.

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An urban food forest in an empty lot

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I recently took another trip down to south Florida to take a look at The Great South Florida Food Forest Project, among other things.

In my recent article for Mother Earth News about mulberry trees, I told the story about how long before we were married, Rachel and I picked mulberries together from a tree down the street from her mom’s place. That tree, sadly, was later knocked down… but a neighbor took cuttings before it died and placed them in an empty urban lot he owned across the street from where the original tree used to stand.

When we visited this time, I brought my camera and snapped a few pictures of the trees and the lot where he planted them, food forest style.

Not only are there mulberries there… he’s now planted acerola cherry trees, mangoes, papaya, bananas, jaboticaba and other tropical fruits around the lot. It’s gone from a sandy parking area to a jungle of food.

I’m glad the tree we once visited lives on in this man’s possession… he seems like a worthy protector of her progeny. I wish I could have spoke with him in person this time – I’ve only met him once, and just in passing. He’s made an urban food forest where I never expected to see one. Good work!

Learn more on mulberries in this post – and start your own Florida food forest with this book!

NOTE TO SELF: Avoid tropical plant fever – do NOT spend too much time in south Florida.

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