The Caribbean Fruit Garden

Sunday, February 19, 2012

BY RICHARD J. CAMPBELL

FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

As published in the Miami Herald

Take a step outside your front door on most any day in South Florida and the climate will take you away. Welcome to the Caribbean! Indeed, sometimes with our hectic pace of life here on the mainland we forget the simple fact that for most of the year we are climatically-speaking the greater Caribbean. We share much of our natural world, the plants and the animals, with our island neighbors, and ignoring this fact invites many challenges in your home garden. 

Like the Caribbean our soils are thin and poor, our summer long and rainy, the winter and spring dry and windy, and we have our share of tropical storms and hurricanes. Yet, with the proper plant selection we can create a Caribbean paradise with a gracious bountiful of fruit throughout the year. For, make no mistake about it, the South Florida fruit gardener is blessed. No where else in the world is it possible to purchase quality fruit trees that meet your every whim and to grow them to fruition - all without the need for dangerous chemicals. There are a few important points however that the home gardener must remember. By following these guidelines there is no excuse for a barren landscape of costly and environmentally-unfriendly grass. 

First you must select fruit trees that are well adapted to our climate. The list of appropriate species is long and diverse. There are fruit trees for every culture, taste, and season here in South Florida. Mango, avocado, sapodilla, mamey sapote, spanish lime, jackfruit, caimito, abrico, white sapote, tamarind, jocote, persimmon, coconut, canistel, macadamia, pineapple, passionfruit, Barbados cherry, dragon fruit and citrus are just a few of your potential choices. Specialty bookstores at parks, botanical gardens and your local extension office offer a few classic publications on fruit trees for South Florida, and there are resources available on the internet. Take care to seek out information that is specific to our area; avoid the generic offerings. Drive, ride your bike and walk around the community to get an idea of what is possible. 

The prudent gardener does not ignore the laws of nature. Caribbean fruit gardening means that one embraces the monsoon, the pattern of rainfall that results in a cool and dry winter and spring and warm, wet summer. Most of our fruit trees are well adapted to a monsoon climate. Irrigation will only damage the tree’s overall health and production and reduce quality. Reserve the irrigation for your lawn. 

We must think in three dimensions in order to optimize space and to provide for a truly wonderful garden. There are upper and lower canopy fruit trees in the Caribbean garden. The mango, avocado, mamey sapote, sapodilla and Spanish lime form the upper canopy, with the tamarind, jackfruit caimito, canistel pineapple and jocote below. A vertical stratification of the canopy in this way will maximize space, provide for a greater diversity in the home garden and also protect against losses due to hurricanes. The Caribbean fruit garden will show a rapid recovery following a storm. 

Pruning is essential to maintain the size and productivity of the garden. Topping for size control and thinning of the canopies will aid in maintaining proper yields and productivity. It will also keep the fruit closer to the ground for your enjoyment, instead of the squirrels and birds. 

A diverse fruit landscape will be more resistant to pests and disease due to an increase in the predators and natural controls. The home gardener will also learn a greater appreciation for tolerance within the home landscape. When encountering an insect on your prized canistel you will hopefully find yourself asking what type of an insect it is, and not just how to kill it. Most insects and disease in the home landscape are best handled through patience and care. There is no need for chemicals. This is a fundamental change within ourselves that the diverse Caribbean fruit garden may help to foster. 

Sustainable production will also reach into the horticultural care of the fruit garden. Commercial chemical fertilizers will be used sparingly, favoring instead the use of mulches and composts to provide for the fertilizer needs of the trees. When one changes over from chemical fertilizers there is an immediate and positive impact on your wallet, on the fruit quality and on the overall health and resilience of the Caribbean fruit garden. Mulching will be a cornerstone of the Caribbean Fruit garden. Given the poor nature of our soils here in South Florida, any addition of organic matter is welcome. Mulching will increase water retention, suppress weeds and increase the overall health of the trees. 

Welcome back to the Caribbean, even if you have not physically moved. It is easy to get swept up in the hustle and bustle of our lives in South Florida, but within our home landscape the Caribbean fruit garden can give us perspective. The monsoon-adapted fruit trees will gently rock you into an appreciation for the seasons, marked by the bloom and the harvest. You will not need a calendar to mark the season; it will be the mango and the tamarind that cycle to the wet and the dry by means of the bloom and their sweet reward. Good growing!