Crop busters: Workshop reveals Florida now grows fruits that once were the province of northern states

What would be better than eating those “Yankee fruits” you remember from up North? The answer is simple: growing and eating them down here, that’s what — peaches and plums and blackberries, right here in Naples, along with dozens of less-famous tropical fruits that make your garden enviable.

Last weekend, the Collier County Extension Office sponsored a three-hour fruit tree workshop, as part of its policy encouraging Floridians to move away from reliance on citrus. Collier County Extension Service Commercial Horticulture Agent Doug Caldwell — “Dr. Dougbug,” as he is known — populated the guest list with heavyweights from across the state. Bob Rouse is an fruit tree experimenter at the Immokalee Research Station, of the Extension Service. Buddy Hopkins, owner of Hopkins Tropical Fruit Tree Nursery, 25355 Shultz Grade, Immokalee, has a deep horticultural knowledge. Jenny and David Burd, owners of the Friendly Burd Tree Service in Naples, speak from decades of local experience.

They offered some revelations: Peaches, blackberries and plums are among the crops that can grow in Southwest Florida as well as in Michigan.

Start with peaches

Mention peaches and folks start wondering about those cryptic “chill hours” that aren’t possible here. Some of the northern peaches require more than 400 hours at temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees to set fruit; Collier will have only 100 to 200 hours.

However, the horticultural magicians at the University of Florida have been busy, busy, busy, developing new varieties of all sorts of “Yankee” fruits with low chill requirements. And have they ever succeeded.

First, Rouse explained that the eastern peaches, meaning those from Georgia and up the seaboard, are normally available mid-to-late June. Florida peaches, though, are available during April, when there are no other peaches on the grocery shelves, including those from Chile. That means Florida growers can find a premium price, which is chiefly responsible for the huge increase in commercial peach production as far south as Immokalee.

These superb new varieties result from decades of research carried out at the Immokalee research station, where there are thousands of trees in the trial. Some are patented, released only to the commercial growers. The homeowner is not left out in the cold, however. Rouse recommends three peach varieties for our area, all of which are “low-chill,” requiring 150 hours of chilly weather:

Floridaprince (that’s what it is called, although the name appears as Florida Prince sometimes) can be picked in mid April. This is an established and dependable variety with deep red skin.

Flordaglo (also an unusual spelling, so some retailers label it Florda Glow) has white flesh, and like other white peaches, is very, very sweet and is also April-harvested.

Tropic beauty is picked at the end of April and has a large and firm fruit. This is another well-established type.

When growing peaches or any fruit tree, Rouse cautions, owners need to prune them so that sunlight penetrates the center. With peaches, proper pruning limits the tree to about 15 feet or so, with a tree that somewhat resembles a three-dimensional candelabra. Imagine branches that start fairly low and grow more or less vertically. And, yes, there are some maintenance issues with peaches, but with good cultural practices these issues shrink in comparison to having your own fresh Florida peaches.

Mangos

Mango season is peaking now, but with smart selection the season can be extended to November. And who better than Jenny and David Burd to lay out the best mango varieties? The Burds are the resident experts on mangos and other fruit trees.

They put on an informative show. Jenny Burd opens her remarks with “The No. 1 question I get? Can I grow mangos in my yard? And the answer is always the same: look up!”

That’s good advice. Don’t plant big trees under power lines. Mangos can grow quite large, so large that regular pruning is needed to keep the fruit within reach.

Asked to name the best types, David Burd, who started his horticultural trek decades ago in Israel, points out with a laugh that his favorite mango is “the one I am eating now!” He did recommend several great types:

Tommy Atkins, a very reliable, producing large fruit in June/ July and with good resistance to anthracncose, a common mango problem;

Keitt, which yields very large fruit in August and into September with similar anthracnose resistance. This type originated in southern Florida and is widely planted.

Valencia Pride, a fast and vigorous grower. Quipped Burd: “Cut the hell out of it to make it heavenly!”

Herbie, considered a dessert mango, is a little spicy. It is sometimes eaten with sticky rice.

All the others

What of the less well known plants? Billy Hopkins brought a huge basket of tropical fruits along with his whole family, including little Hanna, and with a truckload of tropical fruit trees and shrubs that were available — and growable in Southwest Florida. Just to name a few: banana, blackberry, blueberry, fig, avocado and more. Hopkins also carries the unusual “Miracle Fruit”: For hours after eating, anything sour tastes sweet. It has been used by some chemo patients to mask the mouth taste from the chemotherapy.

For more information

University of Florida: www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu

Collier County Extension Service Plant Clinic: (239) 353-2872

Hopkins Nursery: (239) 658-0370 wholesale only; www.hopkinstropicalfruitnursery.com

Friendly Burd Tree Service: (239) 263-0424

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