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December 29, 2015

Growing Papaya in Florida

If you like potatoes, you will love Papaya.
If you like zucchini, you will love Papaya.
If you like melons, you will love Papaya.

Even if you have a brown thumb, you can grow Papaya.

Papaya is arguably the easiest fruit/vegetable to grow in Florida. It did not originate here, but it is easily adapted. The climate is just perfect for this hardy and non-demanding plant. It does get damaged by the frost, but then quickly regenerates from the stem or root, in most cases, and continues on growing and fruiting.

Sadly, spoiled by the convenience of pre-packaged and pre-processed traditional vegetables, even Floridians are not too familiar with this incredible plant. It is believed that it originated in Central America, however, it's been grown in Asia for many centuries. Knowing how easy, even invasive it can be when a few seeds are dropped on the ground, I would not doubt that once the fruit got on board of some ancient vessel, it spread over different continents with little help from human gardeners.

It is still an "exotic" fruit in the US, however it is getting more attention throughout "health nut" community due to its unbelievable concentration of all the good enzymes, vitamins, and minerals, as well as being a low-glycemic vegetable despite tasting just as good as a potato or squash, cooked.   

Usually, people buy papaya ripe in the store and eat it like fruit, or melon. But green papaya from your own tree in the backyard is even more versatile. It is next to impossible to buy green papaya in the regular store, that's why very few people know how to cook it or what to do with it.

Pictured above, is my preparation for a delightful low-guilt baked "potato fry". This is green papaya sliced to about 1/8 or less of thickness, then baked at 400F for about 30 minutes, or until done. If you like potato chips, you can slice papaya even thinner and they will come out almost as crunchy. Believe it or not, this whole tray is baked on just one tablespoon of coconut oil. But if you want, you can "shake and bake" them in oil and spices for a richer taste.

Papaya is a neutral vegetable in taste, just like zucchini or squash. Therefore, it responds well to any type of seasonings. I like my "fries" spicy, so I sprinkle salt and cayenne on these fries, but I also tried sprinkling cinnamon and paprika for a more Holiday taste, and they came out delicious. 

Thai people long used green papaya in grated salads - just a mixture of papaya, carrots, ginger, garlic, rice vinegar, and oil. Absolutely delicious. Or, they also make papaya soup (I have not ventured that far yet).

Papaya is extremely prolific. If you are into "prepping", what better plant than papaya to prep. Most people, even native Floridians, will walk right past it, not giving it a second thought. Some people think it's poisonous. If you are not into prepping, it is still a great substitute for potatoes and zucchini, because it is lower in carbs, has lots of fiber, and it is mainly water, so it is good for dieters. All that refers to green papaya. The ripe ones are high in sugar and carbs, but nevertheless, delicious and full of vitamins.

It is practically impossible to buy organic squash in the store, and if you are able to find it, it is outrageously expensive. Green papaya is just as good, grows organically with no issues, and is essentially free. I rarely water it, don't fertilize it, and just collect the harvest.

Papaya is a pretty tree, tropical looking, and decorative. Even if you are in a subdivision, I doubt you will have much push back from the HOA Nazis for growing an "unapproved" vegetable. It's just plain pretty and requires very little care.

So, where do you get it and how do you care for it?

I got my first one at Publix, many years ago. Being naturally curious, I put some seeds in the garden, and some time later, I don't even have to plant it anymore. It magically grows all throughout the garden for reasons unbeknown to me.  

Pick the elongated, oval type. The round ones don't have seeds, and are tough and tasteless. Take the seeds out, rinse them, and sort the darkest and largest ones. Then, after the danger of frost, put some seeds in the garden. Thin them to a foot distance, and once you have some trees growing, thin yet more. Papaya needs at a minimum of 4ft by 4ft square to itself. But you don't need many trees. Just a couple, or a few, depending on your family tastes, will be enough.

It likes a semi-loose soil. It will not grow just on a lawn. It has shallow, rope-like roots that spread out in all directions. You can plant other shallow rooted vegetables right next to it. I am experimenting with planting tomatoes next to the papaya trees that act as natural support. 

Sometimes, when the tree is loaded with fruit, and there is heavy wind or rain, the tree will fall over. Oh, well. Just chop it up to the compost, and before you know, you will have dozens of papaya seedlings sprouting all over the place, providing you with a delightful sight, and a versatile organic food.

December 9, 2015

Growing Coffee in Florida

A while ago Publix used to sell little Angel Trees. I always liked to ruffle through these cute puppies that were just begging to take them home. They were always some unusual and exotic seedlings; some died, some survived. Among few of these floral treasures was a little coffee tree, not more than a few inches tall. Following the directions on the label I transplanted it to the larger pot, and that was mostly the extent of my care for this plant. The next winter it almost froze to death in my unheated green house.

Surprisingly, it grew new shoots from the root and became even prettier and bushier than before. Inspired by such unexpected horticultural success, I ordered three more coffee plants from ebay. At that time Publix was not selling coffee seedlings anymore.

Time has passed, and short five years later I have a mini coffee forest that's not only a pleasure to the eye, but also a producer of some fine Arabica.

Even though coffee is a tropical plant, it does not like Florida's radioactive summer sun, so it must be planted in a semi-shade environment. I planted mine right next to the 6 foot wooden fence, in large containers, close to each other. Thinking back, I should have cut the bottoms of the containers to allow for root growth. And maybe I will venture to do that this coming spring, although this will not be an easy task: these containers are extremely heavy. The reason for planting them in containers was that coffee does not like soggy soil either. In the summer, even with all the sand, water can stand close to the surface, so coffee roots will rot. It might sound like coffee is a picky plant, but actually it is not. Just provide a semi-shaded corner or side of the fence, protect it from direct sun and wind, and don't let it sit with wet feet. Give it some fertilizer, water when soil surface becomes dry, and that's just about it.

They started fruiting the third year, but only produced a few beans. This year, however I am having a full harvest. Coffee beans cover the branches just like berries, prolifically, but not evenly ripening. It is a chore to keep picking and processing the harvest. I came to appreciate coffee that comes from Brazil or other countries for relatively cheap price compared to the labor needed to make a final product.

After picking ripe beans (they will be soft and dark red in color), the beans need to be soaked at least 24 hours in tepid water. The water should start bubbling - that's when you know coffee had fermented. I have no idea whether commercial processing involves fermentation, but that's something I found on YouTube when I was searching for some information on how to shell the beans. It is practically impossible to shell them without soaking.

This is my third harvest this season. After shelling and drying this amount will reduce to about one fourth in volume. Actually, the outer skin is soft and juicy, and sweet to the taste. But I don't know whether it's edible, so I err on the side of caution.

After soaking, you have to squeeze coffee bean from the pulp and leave it to dry on the counter, mixing once a day. The drying process takes about a week.

The fun part, of course, is making coffee from your own harvest. But before that coffee beans need to be roasted. I tried this once, and have to admit that this will be a skill requiring mastering. I messed up my first batch - did not use cast iron skillet, just used the regular one, and I burned it a bit too much. But still, how sweet are the fruits of one's labor. I thoroughly enjoyed my organic, hand grown cup of coffee.

At the end of this season  I estimate I'll have about one to two pounds of dry coffee beans from my four trees. Using simple math, if your family consumes 20 pounds of coffee per year, then you need 40 trees: if I get 2 pounds from 4 trees, then to get 20 pounds I need 4 times 10 = 40 coffee trees. This might sound like a lot, but if you have some room, maybe a fence around the property, or other shaded area, you might be able to squeeze them in. The other consideration is a large number of blankets to cover them in the winter when it freezes. It takes me three comforters to cover my four coffee trees : they are literally butt to butt next to each other. So one comforter goes on the top, and the other two to wrap around the bunch. They absolutely need to be covered securely; Christmas lights will not be sufficient. 

All in all, coffee is pretty easy to grow. Not as easy as papaya :) or other natives, but not too difficult either. Some labor covering them on frost nights, and harvesting and processing the beans - otherwise a pretty and useful plant. Consider it.

November 12, 2015

Florida permaculture for busy people

It's that glorious time of the year when the caring government changes the clocks in order to save ... whatever they originally decided to save. For those of us with regular day jobs this means that we have no time to garden for it is pitch dark at 6 PM.

Joking aside, how do we garden when weekdays are shot, and weekends are torn apart between other responsibilities. I had faced this problem for a few gardening seasons now; summer is dedicated to fighting the lawn, and winter - our best time to garden - is robbed of available light time.

Over a few years that I had the garden at this place, and even four years that I had this blog, my garden had significantly evolved. I started like everyone else, from trying to grow the usual suspects that could be found in the produce isle, to gradually abandoning this time-consuming assortment, and moving towards local, native, perennial, and self-taking-care-of.

With experience, a touch of bravery, and a bit of taste adjustment, food can be grown by itself, especially in year-around gardening season place like Florida. It is scary, from a consumer perspective, to abandon tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and squash. But with the exception of cucumbers, the rest can be substituted by native self-growing plants.

I created a new label that I'm calling "Garden Evolution". Muses like this one will be filed under this new label to describe the journey my garden took towards self-sustainability. Trust me though, this journey is far from being fully explored.

Today I'll start with the greens. If you read any of my posts, you would know that I am an avid greens grower and consumer. I love my greens, and quite frankly, that's what I mostly eat. From late October till late April greens grow like weeds in Florida, especially non-picky ones like bok choy, collards, mustard, and sakurajima greens. But what if you don't have the time to even put some seeds into the ground and water it once in a while?

Enter permaculture. This native Asian plant is making in-roads in the USA and is becoming more and more known thanks to well loved You Tube personalities (you know who!). This plant is Okinawa Spinach.

Yes, it looks like a big mess of leaves, and that's what it is. This huge bush that is completely overtaking my 4x6 raised bed, started from a little rootless twig that I bought on eBay. I let it establish in a container for a few months and then transplanted it to the garden. Okinawa Spinach, at least in hot and humid Florida, likes shady moist places. It needs regular harvesting of the succulent ends (yeah, eat it!) so that it can bush out instead of crawling far and skinny. 

The beauty of this plant is that it requires no care (other than being planted in a favorable environment as I mentioned above). It suppresses the weeds underneath - another useful feature, and it is tasty. I should admit that it is an acquired taste. It definitely has "taste" for it is spicy, but not hot spicy. It just has much more flavor than any green you can buy in the store. I eat it raw in salads. But it can easily be sauteed, steamed, boiled, made into an omelet, or whatever creative heat processing you can come up with. And it grows by itself. Not only that, it can be easily propagated by cutting the stem and rooting it in the container (no rooting hormone required). 

If you are trying to convert the front lawn into food forest or edible landscaping , take note of this candidate. It can be grown as a centerpiece of a flower arrangement, or as a border plant. It can be grown under the trees, in containers, in lieu of the border shrubs. Anything goes with Okinawa Spinach, but as I mentioned, in Florida it needs shade and moisture. So, plant it on the East or North side of the house. 

Lastly, a close cousin of Okinawa Spinach is Molokai spinach, or Longevity Spinach.

Its leaves are green, as opposed to reddish-purplish color of Okinawa. The taste is milder, but it is not as juicy. Growing requirements are the same. It is also believed to lower cholesterol, hence one of its nicknames, "Cholesterol Spinach". 

Well, there you have it. With just these two plants we solved the problem, at least partially, of not being able to grow greens in the summer, or any time when weather, daylight saving, or job does not permit gardening.

April 16, 2015

Companion Planting

In my never ending quest to grow more greens and to extend greens growing season I am experimenting with companion planting, and especially with growing dense and mulching heavily.

What tipped me off in this direction was the experience of harvesting sweet potatoes during some dry times of November. As I pulled the vines that covered the ground densely, I noticed that the ground under the vines was wet and cool while the rest of the garden was suffering from thirst. As I harvested all the potatoes and discarded the vines to the compost pile, the soil where the sweet potatoes were dried out within a day.

Usually regular greens like kale and collards are pretty much done by June. They simply stop growing and wilt away. I accepted that fact as part of Florida growing seasons. But this year I am trying to extend my greens well into the Summer.

The idea is to cover the soil with plants having no empty areas so that the leaves would shade the soil and keep the moisture in while lowering the soil temperature. I am diligently mulching the beds with grass clippings and so far the method works.

The bed above has collards, Buttercrunch lettuce, buckwheat, and bush beans growing together densely, and mulched with a layer of grass clippings about two to three inches deep between the plants. Granted it is not July yet, but we had some over ninety days, and the plants did not wilt. It also helps that this bed gets shade in the afternoon.

The curly leaves in the picture above is Russian Kale. I stumbled upon the seeds at Tractor Supply and just had to try them. It is amazingly juicy and tender kale, and now is my favorite. This kale is interplanted with beans, buckwheat, and broadleaf mustard greens. I am very curious as to what will happen to these beds in the mid-Summer. I am seriously hoping to have enough greens for my salads from these beds; it is definitely a worthy experiment.

April 11, 2015

A different kind of garden

The beginnings of my aquaponics garden. More to come.

April 6, 2015

Sakurajima Radish - a resilient green for Florida gardens

If you are into organic greens, check out this awesome radish that has tasty edible greens. It is called sakurajima radish. It is grown in Japan for the greens and the root, and it is heat tolerant. In Florida it is very difficult to grow greens in the Summer time. After much experimenting sakurajima radish is one green that I grow throughout the Summer. I did try eating the root, but to my taste it was too tough and too dense. It might be good cooked, or fermented like they do in Japan, but at this point I only care for the greens, which are delicious, and did I mention they grow in the heat?

Here's what the root of the plant looks like (hiding beneath the abundant seed pods):

Once you've grown a few plants, they will provide the seeds for you in excess. In fact, sakurajima will re-seed freely if you let it. After a couple of years I have sakurajima sprouting up on the lawn and in garden beds, sometimes very far from where it originally grew.

And finally, here are the greens. Young greens taste good raw in salads, bigger ones are good stir-fried, boiled, or cooked in any way you like cooked greens. They can be seeded throughout the year, but please select a shaded spot for them to hide from the scorching Summer rays.


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