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.
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!”
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.
“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?
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:
“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:
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!
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.