Survivor: Avocado Edition

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Any bets on who dies first?

Contestant #1 is a tropical South Florida avocado, started from a pit in the compost pile. She’s now residing in the front yard, on the edge of the oak canopy. Her roots are buried in good organic matter… yet her pedigree suggests she won’t survive the brutal sub-freezing overnight lows of Norther Central Florida…

Contestant #2 is a 4′ tall well-established Thai variety who spent his first winter safely inside my greenhouse. Now he’s been planted in poor soil deep beneath the cover of a water oak. Right now, all seems well… but will the limited canopy above his head be enough to prevent him from… death?

Contestant #3 is the daughter of a California “Hass” avocado with diminutive fruit. As an embryo, she was saved from the trash at a party… then planted in a melon pit out front. Will she take the cold better than her totally tropical competitors in this fight against the elements?

Only winter will tell. There are just a couple of months left before things get interesting.

Stay tuned…

David-the-good-books-revised

Why Direct Seeding is a Great Idea

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When I don’t have a choice or if conditions are too harsh, I transplant seedlings; otherwise, I think direct seeding is the way to go.

When you plant a seed directly in the ground and let it establish in place, you gain some serious advantages over plants started in flats or pots. This particularly true when you’re talking about trees.

As Allen’s dad’s experiment proved, seeding in place doesn’t have to be tough. You just pick a good spot, plant, water if you remember… and mow around it.

Check out this carob tree seedling I pulled out of a container on my windowsill:

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Direct seeding would have given this carob tree better success

This little seedling is only a couple weeks old. Look at that amazing taproot! (I didn’t even get a picture of the most impressive root in the batch – one of them was easily 16″ long.)
When you put a little tree like this in a pot (like I’m going to do with this one), the taproot gets lost or tangled around in a circle. Some trees can grow new ones when they’re transplanted – some can’t.
Imagine if I’d planted this carob seed directly in the ground. It would already have its main root a foot deep – even though the plant itself is only about 3″ tall. I bet it’s already big enough to handle low rainfall.
I’m not sure if carobs will survive the cold of North Florida, since there’s limited data on them available – but I’m going to try anyhow. I have ten seeds of which I’ve planted five thus far. Four germinated (after scarification and 24 hours’ soaking it took about 10 days for them to come up) and one was a dud. I’m potting up the first four to let them get good and big before I put them out in the yard – but I think I’ll put the remaining five directly in the ground and see what happens.
Since we can’t grow chocolate here… I’m hoping for carob instead.
Carob aside – direct seeding is usually the way to go, whether it be in your garden or in your food forest.
David-the-good-books-revised

Growing fruit trees from seed: a success story

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Still not sure about growing fruit trees from seed? Today’s story will change your mind. Allen the Beekeeper shared some pictures with me a couple weeks ago of the beautiful grapefruit trees in his dad’s yard.

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Right now they’re loaded with fruit and as healthy as can be. The cool thing about them – they grew from seed.

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Growing fruit trees from seed leads to sweet results

How Allen’s Dad Grew His Grapefruit From Seed

Allen related to me that one of his dad’s rare “gardening experiments” consisted of burying a couple handfuls of grapefruit seeds in his yard, then not mowing that area for a few months. Some time later, he had seedlings… then saplings… then producing trees. Now, 20 years later, he’s enjoying (and giving away) hundreds of pounds of grapefruit each year.

Don’t listen to the haters. Experiment! Plant seeds! Win!

David-the-good-books-revised

The Long-Awaited, Gigantic, Starting Fruit Trees From Seed Post

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Okay… I’ve posted on before on starting fruit trees from seed… and I’ve written a bit about starting nuts here, but it’s really too juicy a topic to cover in just two little posts. The following is my do-it-yourself guide to starting a variety of trees from seed – with plenty of pictures I took of my own projects. Yes – they’re not huge trees yet – but they will be. I’ve only been at this for three years and I’m already amazed by some of the successes.

I’m madly in love with seeds. They’re cheap, readily available and could potentially grow into something amazing. The promise contained in a tiny seed is incredible.

Baby carob trees sprouting in a sunny window

However, when it comes to growing trees from seed – fruit and nut trees in particular – we’re almost always told “don’t do it!!!”

Why?

“It won’t breed true!!! You’ll get tiny/bitter/nasty/worthless fruit!”

Really? When you save cabbage seed and plant them the next year, do you get tiny/bitter/nasty/worthless plants? No!

The reality is, you won’t get exactly what you started with, but most of the time, you’ll get something worthwhile. There are always genetic traits we don’t like that may pop up, but most of the time, you get something decent – or even excellent – when you plant seeds, fruit trees included.

Two-year-old citrus seedlings in a greenhouse

Unlike grafted trees, trees that grow on their own roots are often tougher and larger, if not always as productive. Grafting is very useful for commercial farms because it allows them to grow exactly the variety they want. The navel orange, for instance, is a cloned variety that’s been around for almost 200 years. The same genes… replicated ad infinitum via cuttings and grafting. It’s amazing – but in my mind, not the safest thing to rely on when you’re dealing with diseases, pests and changing climates. Where do we get new varieties with disease resistance, larger fruit, higher cold-hardiness, etc.? We get them from planting seeds and seeing what hidden gems might pop out of the plant’s genome.

Of course – this doesn’t happen overnight. Unlike corn, you can’t breed trees quickly. It takes a long time to go from seed to producing tree. Sometimes prohibitively long. But that doesn’t mean we give up. That just means we start planting right now.

I fully intend to get a variety of something named after me before I die. I’m really not picky – it just has to be something tall, productive and handsome so it compares well with its namesake.

If you’re ready to get started with starting trees from seed, the loquat is a great first candidate. It’s in fruit at this time of year, so it’s likely you can nab some seeds easily. Now let’s look at some various trees and how to start them.

LOQUATS

 

Here are some one-year-old loquats I started from seed last spring:

They’re about 2′ tall now and growing fast. Pretty much ready to be planted out. Loquats start quite easily from seed and don’t need stratification or scarification to germinate. Just pop a handful of fresh pits in the ground and start watering. Most will sprout. When they do, carefully pull out and pot up the ones you want to keep – then plant the rest on a local foreclosure property.

CITRUS

 

Citrus are also really easy to grow. Here is a key lime tree my daughter started from seed a little less than three years ago:

It’s over 4′ tall and thriving. Interestingly, unlike some citrus, key limes breed true to type. Plant a key lime seed, you’ll get a key lime tree. Most citrus will give you something edible and similar to their parent (see tomorrow’s post), but not all. From what I’ve heard, cross-breeding is often a possibility, as is the occasional reversion to a sour variety. Plant citrus seeds when they’re fresh as they don’t last long. If they dry out, they’re dead.

AVOCADOS

 

Avocados are another easy-to-grow tree. Almost every year when I was a kid, my grandmother would start pits impaled with toothpicks and suspended in water. They would grow 1-2′ tall in her window, then she’d transplant them out to her backyard where they would invariably die of neglect. This was sort of a hobby of hers, I suppose. (I miss her tons… I wish she was alive so she could read this post and scold me…). The tree below was started from a Hass pit.

The Grandmother Method of starting avocados works well, as does simply burying the pits near the surface of the ground and watering them occasionally until they sprout. Some always will – and avocados also will grow into good trees from seed. I started a pit from a Thai variety with massive fruit the size of cantaloupes, then planted the year-and-a-half old tree in my parents’ backyard. You can see it here.
Incidentally, the volunteer-run Edible Plant Project in Gainesville is working on a long-term cold-hardy avocado breeding project if anyone is interested.

POMEGRANATES

Pomegranates also grow well from seed, so next time you buy a freakishly expensive fruit from the supermarket, plant the seeds.  Here’s a dwarf tree I started from the seeds in a fruit a neighbor gave me:
It bore fruit within a year of me planting it – and, as you can see, it’s working on another round right now. Dwarf pomegranates aren’t as tasty as the full-size trees, in my experience, but they’re still edible. I let the kids spit pomegranate seeds onto paper towels to dry – and then we plant them.
They also lose viability over time, so plant earlier rather than later. One nice thing about pomegranates is that they are precocious trees – they only take a few year to bear fruit.

DATE PALMS

I’ve no idea whether or not date palms will survive here, especially
with our humidity and the various palm diseases spreading across the state – but when you start with seeds, the experiment is basically free. The little palms below were started from a container of dates I bought for a picnic.
Yep. My date palms came from the supermarket. Unfortunately, starting date palms from seed is slightly tricky. There’s a lot of strange info online involving various tricks for starting palm seeds. This method worked for me. First I scrubbed the flesh off the date pits, then let them dry for a few days. After that, I soaked them in water for a couple of days, changing the water frequently so they didn’t rot. Then I planted them a couple inches deep in a terracotta pot of moist vermiculite and set that on top of the water heater.
A couple months later, I dug in to see what was going on and discovered a few of the seeds had developed roots. I took those out and put them in pots outside to continue growing. I had sporadic germinations occur on top of the water heater for another month or so, and I potted those out as well. After a few weeks outside, they’d poke up leaves and it was off to the races. Overall, I’d say I had a germination rate of maybe 25%.

PEACHES

Peaches are a little tricky in Florida for a couple of reasons.

1. They require rather specific chill hours.

If you plant pits from the grocery store, chances are the tree will never thrive even if it manages to reach maturity. Unless they’re bred for it, they can’t set fruit without getting enough cold. Their dormancy cycles get messed up, they flower sporadically, they tend to get frozen down at weird times, etc.

2. Nematodes can be deadly for peaches.

There’s a root stock used here called “Nemaguard” that is resistant to the darned things – but when you plant from seed, you’re likely not going to have those genes so adding lots of compost and mulch around the roots is a good idea. Nematodes hate soil with high organic matter content.
Those two contingencies haven’t stopped me. I plant them anyways. In the summer of last year, I got a bunch of fruit from the popular low-chill cultivar “Tropic Beauty” – then I did what any mad horticulturalist should – I figured out how to germinate the seeds.
Unlike our previous subjects, peaches need stratification to germinate. That means they need a cold period – a real or simulated winter – in order to start growth.
Here’s how I started mine. First I cleaned and dried a pile of pits, then carefully cracked them open with a nutcracker and removed the seeds inside. I then soaked those in water for a day or two. After that, I put them in baggies of moist potting soil and popped those baggies in the refrigerator.
About two months later… a miracle happened. The pits started forming roots. As they did, I put them out in pots and flats to grow – which they did quite well. Now I’m sticking little peach trees in the ground around my yard and hoping they survive the nematodes. Total cost? $0.00.

CONCLUSION

Growing fruit trees from seed is cheap and satisfying. If you have more time than money – or like to experiment – or need to fill a large area with trees – this is the way to go. I took all the pictures in this post last week. Those trees basically cost me nothing. If you plant seeds every year, you’ve always got something new coming up… and trees growing older and bigger from last year… and the year before… and the year before.

It’s not an instant gratification thing, but over time you can get a wonderful variety of trees going and find excitement in knowing that no one else has the varieties you’re growing. If you plant plenty of seeds, you’re bound to get some good trees. If one of your home-grown trees produces poorly or bears sour fruit – so what? Graft onto it. Cut it down and make a melon pit. Turn it into wood for your smoker. Make marmalade! What did it cost you? $0.00. There’s no risk!

And who knows – maybe one day, just like me, you’ll get a variety named after you.

Tomorrow I’ll share another fruit tree seed starting success story. Until then, get off the ‘net and go plant something.

David-the-good-books-revised

Florida Gardening in December

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Merry Christmas, green thumbs!
Unlike our poor sad friends up north, we don’t have to worry about “White Christmases” and all that nonsense here in Marion County. No… here Christmas is a time of cool nights and sunny days… and ongoing gardening. I grew up in South Florida, where it’s always green, so the multiple freezes and brown grass up here took some getting used to – but it’s a lot better than living further north, where snow, drizzling rain and weeks of grey skies drop your dopamine levels into the basement of despair.
If you have a greenhouse or a sunny window, December is a great month to start sprouting sweet potatoes. Toothpicks, a healthy tuber and a jar of water are all you need to get going. Poke three or four toothpicks into a sweet potato at about 1/3 of the way down from the end with the stem scar/little eyes on it. Then use those to suspend it into the jar, and fill it with water so at least half the potato is submerged. You may have to change the water occasionally if it gets nasty, but that’s part of the fun. In a few weeks, sprouts will appear. When they get 2-3” long, break them off and stick them into some soil. They’ll root and the potato will continue making new sprouts, sometimes for months. In fact, you can just about plant an entire bed from one good potato in the window. By March, you ought to have plenty of
little vines ready to go.

Another thing you can do this month is create new garden spaces. The weeds grow really slowly during the winter and the weather outside
is perfect for working. I like to use this season to double dig new plots,
build raised beds and clean up and mulch around my dormant trees and shrubs.
Don’t wait until spring to get rolling – it’s better to get things pretty and functional now before the rush to plant starts.
Ever start trees from seeds? Though they don’t come true to
type, many trees will produce wonderfully even without being a named variety. I’ve started pecans, peaches, persimmons, loquats and other attractive trees around my yard – for free. Many seeds and nuts that fall to the ground late in the year need a time of chilling to sprout – and that time is now. Soak acorns, chestnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, black walnuts and other seeds in water for a day or two, then pick a spot in your yard (or use a pot) to plant them. The chill of winter should initiate germination them and in spring, you’ll have baby trees popping up. I’m experimenting with mixed nuts from the supermarket this year – why not? At $3 a bag, I’ve nothing to lose – even though I know some varieties will be out of our growing range. Interestingly, trees that
start from seed often have faster growth and stronger taproots than those which are bought and transplanted. It will take a long time for them to bear this way – but who knows – you may end up with something really cool. If you’ve got a scientific streak and like to experiment, this is a cheap way to satiate your inquiring mind. (Though you might want to mark where you’ve planted things so you don’t accidentally decapitate your seedlings during a spring mowing!)
Enjoy the chill air – and enjoy celebrating the Nativity with your family, friends and plants.
David-the-good-books-revised

Growing Trees from Seed

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growing trees from seed

Baby calamondin trees reaching for the light.

Growing trees from seed and watching them shoot for the sky is one of the most satisfying projects a gardener can undertake.

If you’ve already planted a good set of trees in your orchard or food forest, why not start filling in the edges with your own seedlings?

Sure… growing trees from seed takes “forever.” But the satisfaction of growing trees from seed is unbeatable. I have 4′ key lime trees out back that my daughter and I started from seed.

I just put them in a corner of my garden area and water as needed. And they grow… grow… grow.

This spring we started pecans from seed and planted a few out in the yard. We’ve done the same with loquats, pomegranates, peaches, various nitrogen-fixing trees, papaya, a plethora of citrus and even avocado and mangoes (which we keep in large pots to overwinter in the greenhouse.) Right now I’m attempting to germinate some American persimmon seeds. They’re sitting in a little flat of potting soil, exposed to the elements. This should give them the winter chill they need over upcoming months and send them through the earth sometime in the spring. If they fail… I’m out a few minutes planting time and the moments spent gathering overripe persimmons from the ground and squishing the seeds out. If they succeed, future generations can share in my success.

The cost of starting trees from seed is almost zero. And if you’re always planting the seeds from the fruit and nuts that come through your kitchen, the gradual result is that over time you have lots and lots of young trees you can plant out and share with others.

Plugging a few into vacant lots around your neighborhood isn’t a bad idea either. What’s the loss? 2 minutes of planting time?

Try starting a few. It’s addicting.

UPDATE: Check out my big post on growing trees from seed!

David-the-good-books-revised