Fruit for Free

Here in Florida we are lucky to have so many choices available when adding fruit to our landscape. We can go the classic route with all the varieties of citrus. We can go tropical with bananas, mangoes, paw-paws, and papaya. Stone fruits are even an option if we use heat tolerant varieties. All of these are worth incorporating in to your food garden but this article is going to highlight the ones that need absolutely no help from you. Because sometimes you want to weed, prune, feed, and water. And sometimes you just want to walk outside and get food. Here are five fruits that can do that for you:

Cactus Fruit

1. Cactus Fruit

Cactus fruit are rich, deep, and juicy. High in antioxidants, vitamin c, and just plain gorgeous to look at. The fruits themselves are little hard to eat out of hand due to all the seeds, but since the seeds themselves are also edible and full of fats and protein, you can excuse them. The juice is delicious on its own or made into jam. And as a bonus, the cactus pads taste great steamed, stir fried, or grilled. Not a bad deal for a plant you can completely ignore until you need something from it.

Mulberry

2. Mulberry

Mulberries should be against the law. They give out so much food for free its like stealing. Just plant your mulberry trees and forget them. They will take care of themselves until mulberry season and then completely load themselves with fruit. There will be thousands of large blackberry like fruits on every tree and you can literally pick them by the bucket loads. Go ahead, pick every day. The tree will just load itself up again. Bonus, as the birds and squirrels eat the drops, they deposit mulberry seeds everywhere giving you more free trees you can get fruit from. Granted the harvest window is short, a few weeks at best, but the fruit freezes well and works great in jams, so I’m sure you will work it out.

3. Maypop

Maypop, also known as purple passion flower, is a weed that borders on being invasive. It climbs up trees and fences making almost a blanket of greenery. Its trademark flowers are extraordinary, making it useful as an ornamental plant as well, especially for unsightly parts of your yard you’d like to cover over. It produces tons of little yellow fruits full of gelatinous pulp and edible seeds. You can basically just squirt the whole thing in your mouth. In addition to the yummy fruits, almost all parts of the plant have a medicinal use. Super bonus, it attracts and feeds butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. (Fun fact for those of us who live locally: the native Seminole word for this plant is Ocoee)

4. Sherbet Berry

The sherbet berry is a medium sized shrub from India. Super tolerant to bad and sandy soils. Also heat and drought tolerant. They produce a small and tasty fruit very similar to a blueberry. If you have ever tried to grow organic blueberries in Florida, you will soon see why the sherbet berry is the better choice. I actually forgot I planted one, came out a year later, and there it was, covered in fruit. Like boom. I’m sure if I had watered it, fertilized it and pruned it, it probably would have produced more, but the point is I didn’t.

5. Beauty Berry

Last but not least, the lowly beauty berry. The American Beauty Berry is native to much of the southeast and can be found in forests and empty lots almost everywhere. A tropical evergreen, it sometimes blends unnoticed into the brush until it fruits. The dark purple, almost metallic looking berries are unmistakable and almost look as if they should be toxic, but they aren’t. The plant is most prolific during the fall and winter, producing a berry when not much else is. Granted they aren’t the juiciest or the tastiest, but they’re there for you even though you didn’t have to be there for them. Very useful as a “mix-in” with other fruits when making jam, wine, or smoothies. Bonus, the leaves can be used both as a mosquito repellent and for the treatment of mosquito bites. Additional bonus, these fruits are food for migrating birds at a time of year when they really need it. So even if you don’t want some for yourself, plant a few for them.

And that’s it, five completely maintenance free sources of fruit you can add to your landscape today.

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Summer is Coming

Spring is easy. The days are warm and sunny, the nights are cool, and the gentle rains are just enough to keep your plants hydrated. While you are enjoying your spring harvests though, is the time to make your plans for summer.

Sure, you could just let your garden beds go to weed until fall when things get easy again, but you shouldn’t. Weeds are the breeding grounds for all the pests you don’t want next season. In addition, mature weeds drop seed, which also spells more work for you later. The best plan is to continue to maintain your garden through the summer both for better soil health and for the additional food it provides.

The simplest plan is to plant a fast growing, sprawling cover crop and leave it alone. It will fill your beds, crowd out weeds, and attract good bugs. My favorite choices are sweet potato and peanut. The peanut comes up first and is a nitrogen fixer, meaning it adds nitrogen to the soil, thereby improving it. As it matures in the mid to late summer, the advancing sweet potato foliage fills in the space. Both are deliciously edible. Being root crops, they provide even more benefit as harvesting them tills your bed for you, making it all ready for your fall plantings.

sweet-potato

But you can add even more, An active summer garden requires a bit more planning as you are limited by what can tolerate both the extreme heat and the constant rain, but there are probably a lot more options available than you might have thought.

For easy greens you have collards, roselle,  and Okinawa spinach. You can also harvest sweet potato leaves, and the leaves of pumpkins or squash. Switch your green beans out for a tougher yard long bean and they will grow nicely. Add pigeon pea as a protein source. Okra, eggplant and hot peppers are some more heat loving vegetables along with the heartier squashes like North Georgia Candy Roaster and the Seminole Pumpkin.

A few of the fruits you can harvest are: pineapple, Florida cranberry, papaya, banana, cactus fruit, star fruit, figs, pomegranate, limes, and lemons.

So make plans to maintain your garden all summer and reap the benefits of fewer pests, better soil, less work in the fall, and homegrown fresh picked produce all year long.

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My Favorite Things

Spring has me going this year. It feels like a good one. So I thought I would post a list of my top ten favorite things to grow in Florida and why.

Number 10. Cuban Oregano

cuban

Also called flat leaf thyme or broad leaf thyme, this is my go to spice. It is the easiest of all the herbs and I really believe it can’t die. I have thrown away a pot this used to grow in only to find it regrowing months later in the abandoned pot. Besides that it tastes great and goes with everything.

 

Number 9. Spineless Cactus

cactus

Easy peasy lemon squeasy. No maintenance greens, fruit, grain and oil all in one crop. (wine if you are ambitious) Plant in a dry spot and forget it. Harvest when you need it.

 

Number 8. Mullberry

mullberry

Who doesn’t want bucket-fulls of berries? These trees ask nothing from you all year long and then suddenly in the spring they start producing branches full of huge dark berries. The blooming window is short, so pick every day while you can and you will have a freezer full of juicy berries for the rest of the year.

 

Number 7. Nasturtiums

nasturtiums

My pretty little nasturtiums. I look forward to them every spring . They come in many colors and add brightness to the garden. They self sow, so you don’t need to remember to plant them more than once. They protect your squash plants from pests but they are also edible. The lily pad like leaves and multicolored flowers both taste peppery and are a great addition to any salad especially one with blue cheese and fruit. They also produce a little nodule that is sort of caper-y and can be pickled. Plus they are just adorable.

 

Number 6. Borage

borage

Another edible flower. This one protects your tomatoes and peppers while looking gorgeous. Fuzzy fat leaves taste just like cucumber and can be tossed into salads while young. The flowers are the star though. Bright blue and edible. They can be added to chilled summer water with lemon or lime and add a touch of cucumber flavor. They can be tossed into salads or frozen into ice cubes. They can also be made into tea that has a calming but energizing property.

 

Number 5. Sweet Potato

sweet

Sweet potato is a wonderful thing. Plant a patch and you have food. The leaves are edible as a green and the tubers are a delicious and sustainable source of nutrients. White potato is a pain to grow in Florida. Plant a few in the fall and have them as a treat now and then, but for all your potato needs, sweet is the way to go.

 

Number 4. Luffa Sponge

lufa

Luffa is another thing I look forward to. I can’t wait to plant them. They are beautiful growing, cover everything, have tons of yellow flowers, attract pollinators, and give you natural sponges. I like to make my own bar and dish soap, so being able to make my own bath and kitchen sponges makes me feel all sorts of sustainable. Plus they compost when you are done.

 

Number 3. Okinawa Spinach

okinawa1

Okinawa spinach is the best. It is the delicious green that is there ten months out of the year. Dies in a freeze, but so easy to start again from clippings you can always have some if you keep it going. Tastes great, great for you. No really, way better than kale in the taste department.

 

Number 2. Pigeon Pea

pigeon pea

Peas in a tree, how can that be? This fast growing plant is an ever ready source of protein. Low maintenance, beautiful to look at, it provides almost never ending food for both you and your chickens. Pick the peas green and toss them in with your boiling rice for a fast, no soak, vegetable protein, or dry them and store like pinto beans. Plant a few directly in the chicken coop and let the chickens eat the drops and fertilize your tree at the same time.

 

Number 1. North Georgia Candy Roaster

sweet-potato

This beautiful  vine doubles as both a summer and a winter squash. Pick it young as a summer squash, or leave it on the vine to harden. Grows easily even in the Florida heat. Is resistant to mold, mildew, and squash borers. Tastes great and looks amazing. I’ve had this variety climb a tree and hang fruits down from 10 feet in the air. Just a wonderful plant.

 

And there you have it, my top ten staple plants. Low maintenance food, all year long.

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The Na Ga

The North Georgia Candy Roaster, fancy name Cucurbita Maxima is yet another one of those “light bulb on” type of plants. The type of plant that when you find it, it’s like really, this was here the whole time?

Up North, squash is easy. People joke about having so much surplus zucchini that they have to drop it on the neighbor’s porch and run. Down here it is a little more complicated. It’s not that you can’t grow squash here, you can. It just requires a lot of timing and effort. You have to wait until temperatures warm up, but not too much. You have to treat for mildews and rot once it starts raining. And once you get your plant established, you have to treat for squash vine borers or you will come out one morning and find the whole thing in a mushy mess.

Again, its not that you can’t, but by the time you buy the neem, the kaiolin clay, the BT and everything else you need to baby your squash, its just not worth it. If only there was a squash made for Florida. One that could take the heat of summer, bear the rains without molding, and stand up to those borers once and for all. Wait what? There is? (well of course there is or we wouldn’t be this far into an article)

Enter the North Georgia Candy Roaster, or as I like to call it, the NaGa. Possibly one of my favorite plants in the world.

sweet potato.

This rare heirloom variety was originally cultivated by the Cherokee Indians in the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern portion of the United States. It is still most often grown in parts of northern Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.  Like many of the winter squashes enjoyed in America, this one continues to be cultivated because of seeds provided by Native Americans. The North Georgia Candy Roaster Squash is part of a group of candy roaster squashes that were all cultivated by the Cherokee and vary in shape from oblong to round and in size from 10 pounds to over 200. The North Georgia Candy Roaster is a large oblong squash that develops a bluish tip on maturity.

This squash is both versatile and hardy. I have found no equal for growing squash in Florida. One of the few plants that can take Florida’s summer heat and rains, the NaGa will soak it all up and sprawl everywhere. It is large and almost invasive, so give it plenty of room to grow. It needs lots of sun and water, but for a squash, it is very low maintenance. Its stem is thick and woody which repels squash borers and it is naturally resistant to powdery mildew and other fungi. If you harvest the fruits small, they look and taste like yellow squash. If you leave some to mature though, they will grow into 4 foot long banana shaped fruits. They develop a hard rind like a pumpkin and can store up to 6 months if kept somewhere cool.

Image result for north georgia candy roaster

Although it was originally valued by the Cherokee people for its hardiness, it is appreciated now for its unique taste. The candy roaster has a rich, sweet taste, similar to a sweet potato that only improves with storage. Delicious both as a vegetable and in pies and other baked goods, it is also recognized by the Arc of Taste.

So yes, this delicious, easy to grow plant that doubles as both a summer and a winter squash has been here the whole time. Give the NaGa a try and see how easy it can be.

 

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Making Space

Space is not one of my concerns. I live in a rural area. I have more garden than I know what to do with. If I ever did manage to fill it completely, I could just chop down a few trees and keep on planting.

But lately I’ve been meeting more and more people wanting to grow food without space. People who live in food deserts and want fresh vegetables. Homeowners and renters wanting to replace the ornamental plants in their residential landscaping with edibles. Apartment dwellers who want to grow real food for themselves. So I thought I would post some ideas about urban and container gardening for anyone just starting out that wanted to give it a try.

First, look at the space you have and think creatively. Do you have a small strip of dirt by your door with hedges growing in it? Is there a patch of grass between your house or unit and the neighbors? If you own the house or condo, remove the hedges and replace them with edibles like blueberries in filtered sun, or a row of dwarf papaya and banana trees in full sun. Pineapple would grow great up against a house. If you rent, ask your landlord if you can change the landscaping. Plant food everywhere you have dirt.

Image result for apartment yard garden

Image result for apartment yard garden

Did your landlord say no? Do you have access to a flat roof, patio, balcony, or side yard? Then use containers. Get as many large pots as you can, fill them with organic potting soil and you are good to go. Take 5 gallon buckets, cut 2-3″ holes in the sides, fill them with dirt and hang them. Grow lettuce, herbs, and kale in the top opening, then plant cucumbers, tomatoes, or strawberries in the holes and let them grow downwards.  Plant small fruit trees like dwarf papaya, banana, and citrus in large pots, then plant herbs and greens around the base of the tree.

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Hang plants off roofs or railings, stack plants on shelving, use every inch you can spare. Hang mesh fabric reusable grocery bags filled with soil off balconies and use them to grow root vegetables like potatoes and carrots. Grapes and raspberries can be trellised to grow up walls. Place containers on the steps of an outdoor staircase and use the arm rail to trellis beans. If you have sun, there are few limits on what can be grown in containers. Even if your sun is limited, you can still grow herbs, greens, and lettuces.

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So if you are one of those people who would love to grow food but lack the space to do it, I encourage you to get creative. Don’t be limited by your space. You have more than you think. Start planning your garden today.

 

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Spineless Cactus

Are you looking for a new easy going plant to add to your landscape? What about a plant that requires zero maintenance and is completely drought tolerant? What if it also had beautiful flowers that attracted bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to your garden? What if it was edible, had medicinal uses, and produced tons of dark juicy fruits? Interested? Then take a good look at the spineless cactus.

Image result for spineless cactus pads to eat

The spineless cactus is common from Mexico to Maine and has over 200 species. The cactus common to Central Florida is the Nopalea cochinellifera, or cochineal cactus. It can also be called the Indian Fig or Prickly Pear. It produces large flat (almost spineless) green pads called nopales that can be used green medicinally much like the aloe plant or cooked and eaten like a vegetable. The cactus also produces tons of dark red juicy fruits called tuna that can be used for their juice and seeds.

This plant is a must have for the Florida permaculture landscape, famine garden, or anyone who is trying to be self sustainable. This is one of those plants that will just always be there for you. Heat, drought, freeze, hurricane, you name it. At least you will have something you can eat.

It is beyond easy to grow. Great in full sun, but also fine in partial shade. Tolerant of  the worst of soils. Never needs watering or really any care at all for that matter. Its only weakness is soggy or marshy ground. Plant it somewhere dry and you will get food.

The pads are tasty and nutritious. They are high in vitamin C, boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of diabetes. They can be harvested anytime, but the smaller younger pads are the best tasting. The older pads are tougher and have more thorns, but they are still edible. Harvest them with garden gloves or something to protect your hands as they are covered in tiny hair like thorns. For the smaller pads, just rinse under running water and scrape with a knife or abrasive kitchen sponge to remove the prickers. For a larger pad, either cut the prickers out with a knife or peel the pad. I recommend peeling.

The pad is actually very versatile. It can be grilled, boiled, baked, or fried and has the texture and flavor of a lemony green bell pepper. It can be easily mixed in to most casserole or soups recipes but my favorite use is to grill it and use it in fajitas. It has a bright summery flavor and the hint of citrus goes perfectly with Mexican, Thai or Cajun cooking.

The fruits have a deep red interior, almost purplish and are very juicy inside. They are high in antioxidants and contain antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties. The also have small spines on the outside and should be peeled before using. Due to their high seed content, they are better if juiced and then made into jellies, syrups, salad dressings, or beverages. The flavor is sweet and slightly tart, sort of a cross between a raspberry and a pomegranate. My favorite use for this, other than jelly is a cactus fruit mojito. The color is beautiful and the flavor is unique. If you drink too many, the cactus still has your back. The fresh juice from the fruit has been used for hundreds of years as a hangover cure.

The cactus is not done yet though, the seeds are surprisingly high in protein (16.6%) and iron (9.45 mg). They also contain almost half of the necessary amino acids that we need to live and have a high oil content (17.2%). They can be dried and ground into a flour or used as an oil crop.

So there you go. Add some cactus to your landscape and some food to your table. It couldn’t be easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Successful Gardening

Everyone wants to have a successful garden. You see pictures in the magazines and seed catalogs of smiling gardeners reaping baskets full of their bountiful harvest. You want to be just like that.

And then you try to grow in Florida.

Its too hot and too wet. The bugs are everywhere and fungus grows on everything. You stick it out and at the end of the season get 8 green beans and one tomato. What went wrong?

Florida is difficult, no lie. But with the right amount of knowledge, you can be a successful gardener.

The secret is simple. It’s not always your gardening skills (or lack thereof) causing those small yields. You have to first select the correct variety of plant for the region you are in.  You want heirlooms that originated from where you are growing or from other climates that are similar so that they are naturally adapted. If you are in Florida, that means selecting varieties that are heat and mildew resistant and that originate from the Southeast.

A perfect example is the tomato. If you buy a tomato seed or cutting from a big box store, you are likely to get one of the larger beefsteak varieties. These do great in a longer, cooler, growing season, but plant those here and they will split from the heat before they mature. Choose a southern heirloom, like the Cherokee Purple, and this small to medium size fruit will have plenty of time to develop before the heat ruins it.

The second secret is knowing when to plant everything. Again, the garden centers tend to promote the Northern planting schedule which means starting your vegetable garden in April. In Florida though, if you start in April you won’t have enough time to harvest anything before it gets too hot in May and June.

To make it even easier, I’ve attached a planting schedule for Central Florida so you will know what to plant and when. So get out there. Let’s have some successful gardens this fall!

 

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