Loquat – An Attractive Small Tree That Bears Tasty Fruit

Loquat – An Attractive Small Tree That Bears Tasty Fruit

Loquat trees provide nice fall color with creamy yellow buds and white flowers on their long terminal panicles.  These small (20 to 35 ft. tall) evergreen trees are native to China and first appeared in Southern landscapes in the late 19th Century.  They are grown commercially in subtropical and Mediterranean areas of the world and small production acreage can be found in California.  They are cold tolerant down to temperatures of 8 degrees Fahrenheit, but they will drop their flowers or fruit if temperatures dip below 27 degrees Fahrenheit.

Loquat Tree

A beautiful loquat specimen at the UF/IFAS Extension at Santa Rosa County. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS – Santa Rosa County

Leaves – The leaf configuration on loquat trees is classified as whorled.  The leaf shape is lanceolate and the color is dark green with a nice soft brown surface underneath.  These features help give the trees their tropical appearance.

Flowers – 30 to 100 flowers can be present on each terminal panicle.  Individual flowers are roughly half an inch in diameter and have white petals.

Fruit – What surprises most people is that loquats are more closely related to apples and peaches than any tropical fruit.  Fruit are classified as pomes and appear in clusters ranging from 4 to 30 depending on variety and fruit size.  They are rounded to ovate in shape and are usually between 1.5 and 3 inches in length.  Fruit are light yellow to orange in color and contain one to many seeds.

Loquat Flowers with Honey Bee

A cluster of loquat flowers/buds being pollinated by a honey bee. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS – Santa Rosa County

Propagation – Loquat trees are easily propagated by seed, as you will notice as soon as your tree first bears fruit.  Seedlings pop up throughout yards containing even just one loquat tree.  It is important to note that the trees do not come true from seed and they go through a 6- to 8-year juvenile period before flowering and fruiting.  Propagation by cuttings or air layering is more difficult but rewarding, because vegitatively-propagated trees bear fruit within two years of planting.  Sometimes mature trees are top-worked (grafted at the terminal ends of branches) to produce a more desirable fruit cultivar.

Loquat trees are hardy, provide an aesthetic focal point to the landscape, and produce a tasty fruit.  For more information on growing loquats and a comprehensive list of cultivars, please visit the UF EDIS Publication: Loquat Growing in the Florida Home Landscape.

Pomegranates in the Panhandle

Pomegranates in the Panhandle

Last week at the Panhandle Fruit and Vegetable Conference, Dr. Ali Sarkhosh presented on growing pomegranate in Florida.  The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is native to central Asia.  The fruit made its way to North America in the 16th century.  Given their origin, it makes sense that fruit quality is best in regions with cool winters and hot, dry summers (Mediterranean climate).  In the United States, the majority of pomegranates are grown in California.  However, the University of Florida, with the help of Dr. Sarkhosh, is conducting research trials to find out which varieties do best in our state.

In the wild, pomegranate plants are dense, bushy shrubs growing between 6-12 feet tall with thorny branches.  In the garden, they can be trained as small single trunk trees from 12-20 feet tall or as slightly shorter multi-trunk (3 to 5 trunks) trees.  Pomegranate plants have beautiful flowers and can be utilized as ornamentals that also bear fruit.  In fact, there are a number of varieties on the market for their aesthetics alone.  Pomegranate leaves are glossy, dark green, and small.  Blooms range from orange to red (about 2 inches in diameter) with crinkled petals and lots of stamens.  The fruit can be yellow, deep red, or any color in between depending on variety.  The fruit are round with a diameter from 2 to 5 inches.

 Fruit, aril, and juice characteristics of four pomegranate cultivars grown in Florida; fruit harvested in August 2018. a) ‘Vkusnyi’, b) ‘Crab’, c) ‘Mack Glass’, d) ‘Ever Sweet’.

Fruit, aril, and juice characteristics of four pomegranate cultivars grown in Florida; fruit harvested in August 2018. a) ‘Vkusnyi’, b) ‘Crab’, c) ‘Mack Glass’, d) ‘Ever Sweet’. Photo Credit: Ali Sarkhosh, University of Florida/IFAS

A common commercial variety, ‘Wonderful’, is widely grown in California but does not perform well in Florida’s hot and humid climate.  Cultivars that have performed well in Florida include: ‘Vkusnyi’; ‘Crab’; ‘Mack Glass’; and ‘Ever Sweet’.  Pomegranates are adapted to many soil types from sands to clays, however yields are lower on sandy soils and fruit color is poor on clay soils.  They produce best on well-drained soils with a pH range from 5.5 to 7.0.  The plants should be irrigated every 7 to 10 days if a significant rain event doesn’t occur.  Flavor and fruit quality are increased when irrigation is gradually reduced during fruit maturation.  Pomegranates are tolerant of some flooding, but sudden changes to irrigation amounts or timing may cause fruit to split.

Two pomegranate training systems: single trunk on the left and multi-trunk on the right.

Two pomegranate training systems: single trunk on the left and multi-trunk on the right. Photo Credit: Ali Sarkhosh, University of Florida/IFAS

Pomegranates establish best when planted in late winter or early spring (February – March).  If you plan to grow them as a hedge (shrub form), space plants 6 to 9 feet apart to allow for suckers to fill the void between plants.  If you plan to plant a single tree or a few trees then space the plants at least 15 feet apart.  If a tree form is desired, then suckers will need to be removed frequently.  Some fruit will need to be thinned each year to reduce the chances of branches breaking from heavy fruit weight.

Pomegranate fruit affected by anthracnose.

Anthracnose caused by Colletotrichum sp. to pomegranate fruit. Photo Credit: Gary Vallad, University of Florida/IFAS

Anthracnose is the most common disease of pomegranates.  Symptoms include small, circular, reddish-brown spots (0.25 inch diameter) on leaves, stems, flowers, and fruit.  Copper fungicide applications can greatly reduce disease damage.  Common insects include scales and mites.  Sulfur dust can be used for mite control and horticultural oil can be used to control scales.

New Flavors with Edible Flowers

New Flavors with Edible Flowers

More and more homeowners are incorporating edible plants into their home landscape in order to enjoy the fresh taste of fruits and vegetables.  Another trend to consider this coming cool season is to start a few common flowers that can serve as flavor enhancements for many of your dishes.

There are numerous plants that we commonly grow that have edible flowers but before striking out on your first taste test, be sure to research first.  Always remember the common saying that every flower is edible once.  Find a reputable reference guide from a friendly neighborhood Extension office for a list of common edible flowers, then be ready to start from seeds.  It is best not to purchase transplants from an ornamental nursery unless you are sure of all the treatments for that plants. Nurseries are often selling these for beauty alone, not with intention that they will be eaten.

Here are a few edible flowers to try:

Pot marigold or Calendula is a wonderful cool season flower on its own.  Brightly colored orange or yellow flowers improve the drab colors of our cool season and plants are sturdy annuals for borders, mass plantings, or in containers.  Petals have a peppery flavor and add spice to salads and sandwiches.  You may also add flowers to soups, fishes and butters for added coloring.  Calendula petals can be a saffron substitute.

Calenduala is easily started from seeds and will reseed in your garden once established. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.

The well known dianthus is a great transition plant as our days cool and warm up again the spring.  Use as front of the border plantings or in containers as a filler.  When harvesting petals of dianthus, you will want to remove the white petal base which is a little bitter.  The flavor is a little more delicate than cloves so you can add petals to punches, desserts, and fruit salads.

If you like a little more spice, try nasturtiums.  We often plant these after the last frost and they grow until we get too hot.  Since our fall weather is so unpredictable, you may be able to start some seeds for a fall planting and have flowers before our first cold spell.  Either way, nasturtium flowers are often sliced for salads and sandwiches as a mustard or pepper substitute.  You can also mince flowers to add to a butter.  If you let some flowers go to seed, collect the unripe seeds to make a caper substitute vinegar.

Grow nasturiums during our transition times of spring and fall. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.

If you are going to use edible flowers from your garden remember to keep all non food labeled pesticides away from plants.  Harvest flowers at their peak after the dew dries.  Separate petals from other flower parts and if you have allergies be sure to remove any pollen. Place flowers in a moist towel in the refrigerator if you will not use them immediately. Rinse carefully so not to damage tender petals.

There are many other ornamental plants that offer edible flowers you may want to consider growing in the future.  These flowers not only enhance the look of the dish but can offer unique flavoring from a locally grown source – your own backyard.

Eggplants Aren’t Always Purple

Eggplants Aren’t Always Purple

orange eggplant

Turkish Orange Eggplant. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.

Mid-summer in the Panhandle vegetable garden is prime time to be offering up a great crop of eggplant. This is one of my favorite summertime fruits to grow! (Yes, it is botanically speaking a ‘fruit’ and not a ‘vegetable’.)

Many home gardeners are familiar with the standard ‘Black Beauty’ variety that produces large plump fruit, but there are many other eggplant varieties to try. Take a look at Heirloom Eggplant Varieties in Florida to get some ideas. Gardeners can access dozens of varieties through online seed vendors. Eggplants can be dark purple, purple-striped, pale purple, white, green and even orange. They come in all shapes and sizes and all are delicious to eat, j make sure you learn when to harvest the variety you choose for optimum enjoyment. For example, the Turkish Orange illustrated in the photo should be picked before it turns all orange to avoid any bitterness.

In the panhandle, plant eggplant anytime February through August for harvest late spring through fall. Eggplant is in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family along with tomato, pepper, and potato. Keep that in mind when you are planning your garden for next year to avoid planting members of the same family in the same spot year after year, which encourages recurring disease and pest issues.

Eggplant loves rich soil and benefits from regular fertilization with commercial fertilizers or applications of compost. Eggplant is considered a long season crop and one can expect harvest to begin around 90-110 days after planting seed or 75-90 days if setting out transplants.  Eggplant is, in general, more drought tolerant than tomato but it is still good practice keep them consistently moist and avoid letting them completely dry out. Also, while eggplant is self-pollinating, it is an excellent pollinator plant, as many species are attracted to the pretty blooms.

Eggplant is also relatively easy to grow, not generally requiring pruning or staking. Many of the same pests of tomato and pepper will also be attracted to eggplant. Be on the lookout for tomato hornworm and other caterpillar pests. For natural pest control methods, consult Natural Products for Managing Landscape and Garden Pests in Florida

For more information:

Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide

 

Weeds – More Than Just a Garden Eyesore

Weeds – More Than Just a Garden Eyesore

Nobody likes weeds in their garden.  Weeds are not only ugly, they can host insects and diseases that later spread to your garden.  This situation commonly occurs when weeds belong to the same plant family as the desired landscape or vegetable species, but some insects and diseases have diverse palettes.  For example, I recently witnessed a looper caterpillar on a pokeweed plant.

Looper Damage on a Pokeweed

Looper damage on a pokeweed plant. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension at Santa Rosa County

Loopers are common pests of vegetable gardens and in the landscape.  Probably the most common loopers found in North Florida gardens are cabbage loopers (Trichoplusia ni) and soybean loopers (Chrysodeixis includens).  Cabbage loopers can be found feeding on cabbage, of course, as well as leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, chrysanthemums, and snapdragons.  Weeds that attract this looper are lambsquarters, dandelions, and curly dock.  Soybean loopers like to feed on sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, geraniums, and sunflowers.  They can also be found feeding on oxalis, kutzu, and lantana.

Looper insect

Looper found on pokeweed plant. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension at Santa Rosa County

Although weeds can be hosts for pests, they may be used advantageously.  Trap crops can be planted at a garden’s perimeter or windward portion to attract pests away from the desired crop.  A trap crop draws the pest crop away from the main crop.  The trap crop is then destroyed or sprayed with insecticide when the pest insect is found feeding on it.  This allows for a reduction or elimination of insecticidal use on the desired crop.  However, it is important that both the trap crop and the desired food crop or ornamental crop are regularly scouted to keep track of pest populations.

For more information on trap crops and other insect and disease diversion methods you can read the EDIS Publication: Intercropping, Crop Diversity and Pest Management.

Beat the Heat With a Self-Watering Container Garden

Beat the Heat With a Self-Watering Container Garden

Spring is in the air, and that means temperatures are warming up and tank-tops, shorts, and flip-flops will soon be your preferred attire. Once those highs are steadily in the 80s and 90s, any outdoor activity will become coupled with a bottle of water and the occasional ice-cold glass of lemonade.

Self-watering containers allow you to continue gardening even if you plan on going on vacation this summer. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Self-watering containers allow you to continue gardening even if you plan on going on vacation this summer. Photo by Molly Jameson.

If you’re a gardener, you will notice the hot sun doing its best to dehydrate not only you, but your spring vegetable and flower beds too. And although April showers bring May flowers (and Mayflowers bring pilgrims) in many parts of the country, spring is historically one of the driest periods for the Florida Panhandle.

While spring in the Florida Panhandle can be quite dry, it is the relentless heat of summer that really drives up transpiration and evaporation rates. And herein lies the dilemma: the kids are soon to be on summer break, family vacations are on the horizon, and all your favorite summer veggies are on the brink of delivering their bounties.

If you do not have a reliable irrigation system and timer or the fortune of a very generous green-thumbed neighbor, you risk your hard work in the garden succumbing to the heat while you are away. If you find yourself sacrificing a summer garden in place of a vacation, don’t despair. There is a low-cost, homemade solution that can step in while you are away: a self-watering container garden.

Self-watering containers use the process of capillary action, where water molecules are pulled upward from a water reservoir into soil above and then into and through plant roots. The forces of cohesion, in which water molecules stay close together, and adhesion, in which water molecules “stick” to other substances, create this important phenomenon.

A wicking basket uses capillary action to pull water molecules up from the water reservoir into the soil. Photo by Trevor Hylton.

A wicking basket uses capillary action to pull water molecules up from the water reservoir and into the soil. Photo by Trevor Hylton.

While store-bought versions can be costly, you can make a self-watering container for less than $10 with just a few materials and tools. There are multiple designs for creating a self-watering container at home. Typically, designs include two five-gallon food-grade plastic buckets to hold the soil and plant; a knife or hole saw to access the water reservoir; a wicking basket or strips of cotton from an old towel, pants, or shirt to generate the capillary movement of water; a drill and drill bit for drainage; and a plastic pipe for easy filling of the water reservoir.

To make your own, view these Extension-produced self-watering container garden resources and follow the step-by-step instructions that work best for you: