2017-01-03 / Home & Family

Try growing tropical fruit

Henry Homeyer

Are you tired of winter already? Why not grow fruit?

Last year I decided to do just that, and now have three Meyer lemons ripening up on a spindly little tree in a south-facing window. And I have a lime tree that has potential, but is yet to bloom.

My optometrist in Lebanon, New Hampshire, has a grapefruit tree he started from seed more than 20 years ago and now it produces plenty of fruit in a big pot in a bright window.

More on indoor fruit later. Let’s consider outdoor fruit first.

Now is a good time to plan for 2017. Do you have an apple tree? If not, you should. Put on your boots and walk around outside to see where you might plant an apple tree. It does best in full sun, either on a flat or slight slope facing south or east, never north. An apple tree needs a space of at least 20-foot square, preferably more. Good rich, well-drained soil is ideal. Of course there are dwarf apples, but I have never grown one — they are less productive and seem stunted to me.

MEYER LEMONS. MEYER LEMONS. Properly pruned, a mature apple tree is a thing of beauty: a sculpture in your landscape. Pruning is easy, particularly if you do it every year and never let the tree get all cluttered up. They bloom beautifully in the spring, produce apples and stand bare and handsome against the snow all winter.

I’ve grown pears, but they are a bit more problematic. For starters, you can’t generally eat fruit right off the tree, you have to finish ripening it on the counter top. And pears, many of them, want to shoot straight up, not branch out to a gentle rounded form the way an apple tree will do. They can be trained, but are tougher to train than a dog. And you need to grow two varieties of pears that bloom at about the same time to get good pollination.

Twice I’ve grown peach trees, twice they have been killed by a cold winter. Both were a variety called “Reliance” which was developed at the University of New Hampshire and were bred for cold hardiness. My total production from the two trees? Three peaches. After the second one died, I grew vines up it for a few years until it fell over. And I foreswore ever trying again — unless global warming really does turn my garden into a Zone 5 area.

PEAR TREE. PEAR TREE. I ran into a friend recently who asked me about growing paw-paws. I told him I’ve had one for a few years, and it is doing nicely, but has yet to produce fruit. The pawpaw is a native tree that is found in forests of Ohio, Pennsylvania and down through Appalachia.

To refresh my knowledge about paw-paws, I consulted a wonderful book by Lee Reich, “Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Home-Grown Fruit” (Taunton Press, 2012). This book really has lots of personal, hands-on knowledge and I agree with just about everything it says (which is rare, for me) and it always supplements my knowledge.

Reich’s book reminded me that paw-paws need two different varieties in order to produce fruit. I will need to buy another paw-paw this year, as I have just one. They are a medium-sized tree, up to 25 feet tall, and are hardy in Zones 4 to 8.

The skin and seeds of paw-paws are not edible. When they ripen, they often drop to the ground, so you can pick one up, cut it in half, and scoop out a custard like sweet tropical-fruit flavored delicacy. Reich recommends buying named cultivars instead of starting from seed (though mine was either a root sprout or one started from seed).

But back to tropical fruit.

After presenting at the Rhode Island Flower Show last year I went to Logee’s Greenhouse in Danielson, Connecticut. Since 1892 this family has been growing tropical plants in their greenhouses, which now number 14. Byron Martin, grandson of the founder, is a wealth of knowledge — and convinced me that yes, I could grow a lemon and a lime in the house.

Want to grow real tropical fruit? Start by getting a book by Byron and Laurelynn Martin, “Growing Tasty Tropical Plants in Any Home, Anywhere.” (Storey Publishing, 2010). They have the know-how based on years of experience and the book has lots of relevant information.

The book has a few pages for dozens of tropical fruits, and gives suggestions for good plants for beginners. But you can grow black pepper, coffee or bananas. (I haven’t been able to produce bananas, however, and have tried for many years).

One of the most important bits I gleaned from the book is to avoid over-watering citrus (and most other tropical). Grow them in fast-draining potting mix and only water when they are dry. Clay pots are good for that. And don’t put a small plant in a big pot. If the roots don’t reach the bottom of the pot, the soil there will not dry out and the cold, moist soil will rot roots nearby. But, and I know this from personal experience, if you see leaves starting to fall off, you have under-watered the tree. Take action.

So don’t let winter get you down. Dream of spring … and maybe you should start a tropical fruit tree indoors.

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