Growing Tropical Fruit in the Pacific Northwest — Winter Update

Gardening

I was at the grocery store yesterday, shopping for some vegetables, when I glimpsed a small stack of cherimoyas, or custard apples, in the tropical fruit section of the produce department.  This reminded me of my own cherimoya plants that I started last year as an experiment in growing tropical fruit in the Pacific Northwest.

Last August, I posted a description with many photos of the process of planting seeds taken from the fruit.

Let me summarize the events of growing cherimoyas from seed.

Timeline

  • May 3, 2010: Extracted seeds
  • May 3, 2010: Soaked seeds for 3 days
  • May 5, 2010: Planted seeds
  • June 20, 2010: First sprouts.  Move plants outside
  • July, 2010: Transplant healthy seedlings into single pots
  • August 11, 2010: All seeds sprouted; plants were healthy and at least 5″ tall
  • August 20, 2010: Begin moving plants inside
  • September 10, 2010: All plants are moved inside
  • Novemeber, 2010: Plants began wilting and drying
  • January, 2011: 2 plants lose all or most of their leaves

What Was Sort of Going through My Mind

Because this has always been a casual experiment, I decided to introduce variables into the pots, in each of which were 2 plants.  I assumed, from experiences with my outdoor gardening, that the most important factors were exposure to light, watering and temperature.

As soon as the seedlings were sturdy enough, I transplanted the healthiest ones into larger pots.  This gave me 5 pots with 6 plants.

Regulating Light Exposure

During the summer, I kept all the pots outside.  The days were long and hot, temperatures steadily around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.  Nights dipped as low as 50 degrees toward the end of summer.  By late August, it appeared that the plants were no longer growing.

So I moved a couple inside and placed them on the windowsill in the kitchen, a west-facing spot that receives the most sunlight in my apartment.

By late September, I had moved all the plants inside, as the autumn showers were beginning to discourage the plants from growing, it seemed.

Watering

Before they sprouted, I watered the pots of soil once a week. I intended to keep the soil moist but not to drown the seeds. Cherimoyas need well-draining pots and will suffer from over-watering. As soon as they sprouted, I moved them outside.  In addition to watering them once a week, when it rained, I allowed the plants to soak up all the precipitation.  During the hottest peak of summer, while temperatures reached the 90s, I watered them twice a week.

The primary variable in watering occurred during the transition of moving the plants inside.  The first batch to come in received less water, protected from the Pacific Northwest rains that marked last summer’s mild August.  They remained healthy while those outside receiving more water lost leaves or began to fade.

After moving all of them inside, I watered them less. By autumn, I was watering them once every two-and-a-half weeks. By winter, I was watering them once every couple months. Since November, I have watered them twice.

Temperature Variables

In the beginning, all the plants remained in the same climate, so temperatures were even for all.  As Seattle warmed, the outside temperature–and thus the inside temperature–became less polarized.

During July and August, the plants were just as warm as my peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, squash and other summer plants.  It was during these two months the plants grew best.

When I brought a few inside, I decided to create a greenhouse for two of the pots.  For one, I turned a plastic juice container upside-down.  For another, I cut the bottom off a two-liter bottle, removed the label and covered the plant with it.

By far, creating these two greenhouses had the most noticeable effect on the stamina and health of the plants.  The juice container was fogged, thick and see-through white, while the two-liter bottle was transparent, thin and clear.  Of the two, the plant under the two-liter bottle was the healthiest and greenest of all the plants.  In fact, it remained green all through the winter, the only one to do so.

The plant underneath the juice container, on the other hand, eventually dried.  I decided to remove it entirely in December.  The plant still looks as it did then.

As autumn and winter passed, the temperature in my apartment has been more polarized, marked by cold nights and warm days.  The plants have showed little to no change since autumn, having slowly browned and hardened, except for the one under the two-liter bottle.

The cherimoya inside the bottle is strikingly different from the uncovered others.

The LEFT was under one type of cover; the RIGHT was under the bottle.

The leaves of the plant under the juice container have remnants of green.

The State of the Plants in the Winter

The plants look dead, as all the deciduous trees do around here.  One remains green and vibrant, though.  I am curious to see how this affects its growth this spring.  Maintaining a more even temperature, as I’ve done with the two-liter greenhouse, has made such a difference that I ought to try to make sense of it.

Chermimoyas are native to the Andes.  Looking at the annual weather pattern of the area, I see an average high of mid-70s in the summer and an average of upper-50s in the winter.  In other words, there is little variance in the temperature throughout the year.  Independent references informed me that cherimoyas need a cool period, but will suffer from frost, which is why they are always grown commercially in frost-free zones (e.g., southern California, southern Spain, Mexico).

In addition to the stable but varying temperatures, the greenhouse provides some moisture in the otherwise dry air of my apartment.  Being so green, the added humidity no doubt contributes to keeping the leaves full of chlorophyll.

Yet, none of the plants have been exposed to frost and all of them are clearly dormant.  I will have to wait for spring to see what happens next.

If I could go back and start all over again, I would have another two-liter bottle and remove it as the other plants began shedding their leaves.  I have some seeds from last year.  Perhaps I may germinate some more and try it again.

The other cherimoya plants appear dead; one has even lost all its leaves.

Resources

This has entirely been a new experience for me.  Most of my information has come from the Center for New Crops & Plant Products at Purdue University.

The California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc., page on cherimoyas is another great resource.

There’s a very helpful page about growing cherimoyas in The Encyclopedia of Fruits & Nuts available on Google Books.

My cherimoya plant, about 8 months old.

Most references say that cherimoyas can be transplanted outside once they’re about two years old.  Doing that in this climate would surely kill them.  I still don’t know if they’ll make it another year.  Whether they do, it’s hard to imagine, at least now, that they will even flower.

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Growing Tropical Fruit in the Pacific Northwest

Gardening

Back in June, I visited my family out in Pennsylvania.  I love seeing them for so many reasons, but one that stands out is my Aunt Caryl’s mouth-watering cooking.  While I was there, she baked a delicious pie with blueberries she bought from the farmers market.  She also used the one and only lemon that she grew from her very own lemon tree.

Pennsylvania, like Seattle, can be an inhospitable place for tropical plants.  However, they can do very well indoors during those colder months.  Browsing your local nursery or big-box home improvement store, you will discover all sorts of them.

Earlier this year, in May, an ex-coworker and I saved the seeds of a specialty tropical fruit.  This fruit makes only a brief appearance in the grocery stores around here, for about a month, then it goes unheard of until next Spring.  It’s called the cherimoya.

We soaked the seeds for a couple days before planting them.

I knew that it was possible to grow the plants here.  I had heard of a man up in the Cascade mountains growing a lemon tree against a huge rock that collected heat and reflected light onto it.  However, before planting them, I had to do a bit of research and peruse the Internet.

On May 5, I planted them in a pot with an avocado pit I had rescued earlier.

An avocado pit was planted in the middle with cherimoya seeds surrounding it.

Originally from northern South America near the Equator, the cherimoya, also called custard apple, is now grown and cultivated all over Central America, Mexico, and even parts of California.  Apparently it can grow successfully near Los Angeles.  It tastes like a mix of pineapple, banana, and jackfruit.

While I won’t be hand-pollinating any flowers this year–the United States has no natural pollinators of cherimoyas–I will have some foliage to add to my little apartment.

My 4 cherimoya plants on my west-facing windowsill.

A view of 3-month old cherimoya from the top.

The covered one is greener and healthier than the other ones.

I kept a few outside during the summer, but they were getting burned, so I returned them indoors.

My beloved cherimoya.

One grower complained that after the plants reach 8 inches they die.  Others have insisted that cherimoyas are extremely difficult to grow.  Who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll see me at one of the Seattle farmers markets, selling tropical fruit that someone else’s favorite aunt might use for her pie.

13th + Marion Community Garden Expands

Gardening

The garden gets extended.

Today while watering my bed at the 13th + Marion Community Garden, I discovered that the north area, before covered with cardboard, has been tilled and formed into beds.  While JP, Wes, and I constructed our beds with a more traditional parallelogram shape, it seems that the three ladies responsible for the new beds have taken a different approach.

The beginnings of a very attractive garden-bed design.

Although it’s hard to see from the photograph, each of the four beds will be different in size and shape, from triangular to polygonal.  While clearing away soil for pathways, they formed with some rocks what looks to be a future herb spiral behind the plum tree. What a great use of space!

An herb spiral in the making.

From the outset, the three of us who ultimately begot the garden agreed that its growth would depend on the community.  Therefore we decided that there would be no power structure of garden politics: those who wanted a bed would have to build one.  So far, this has worked out very well for all of us.

The plants are taking over my bed.

The way it works is we e-mail one another and schedule a work party that more or less suits everybody.  Certainly not everyone can make it, but a large enough group gathers so that some serious headway can be made.  Then everybody meets, slips on their gloves, grabs some tools either brought in or borrowed from the Photographic Center Northwest, owner of the property,and gets to work.

Kohlrabi: When I planted these, they were tiny and leafless from so much bug-munching. Now look at them!

As this garden expands, both in plants and size, I can’t help but to daydream of the future when I am long gone and I happen to chance by and see it, something completely different but doing then what it’s doing now: bringing gardeners together in a city notorious for its avoidance of human interaction.

Lemon balm.

I imagine that next week I will begin harvesting from my bed.

The beautiful colors of Rhubarb Chard, Savoy Cabbage, and Red Lettuce

And, hopefully, I will be harvesting all the way into the autumn.

A little Bell Pepper.

Now that’s local eating.

13th + Marion Community Garden

Gardening

I wrote earlier that some neighbors and I built a community garden in the neighborhood.  Aside from working overtime this week, I have been busy in there.  Rather than tell you about it, I will post photographs instead.

The garden as seen from the corner of 13th and E. Marion St.

I mulched my bed today with bark donated by a very kind neighbor.

Kale.

Magenta Orach.

Peas.

Lettuce.

My bed is full of Borage, Dill, Basil, Marshmallow, Lettuce, Beets, Chard, Zucchini, Cantaloupe, Cabbage, Kohlrabi, Kale, Orach, Peas, Zucchini. Just to name a few.

I apologize for the lack of updates in the past few days.  I won’t make it a habit.

Today I will remember the sun as red and pink and magenta, as all of the summer’s horizons squishing into the hole in our sky.

Urban Neighbors Build a Community Garden

Gardening

About two months ago, Wes contacted a photography school in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood about converting a corner plot of their overgrown land into a community vegetable garden.  An executive quickly responded.  She told Wes that she would be happy to see the seemingly abandoned space turned into something useful.  Although she was unable to provide any funding, the school’s garden tools were offered freely.

Through an urban farm organization with whom he had volunteered, Wes put out the word that he was looking for a few fellow volunteers to help him build.  Several eager neighbors replied promptly.  JP and I were some of them.

The three of us and a couple others met at the ivy-strangled site.  We showed up with gloves, machetes, clippers, shovels, a pick, and anything that we thought would help us eradicate the plants.  At first the job was daunting.  Spending a couple hours, sweating and sunburning on a blistery Saturday afternoon, we had barely made a mark.  But we persevered.

Over the course of a month, JP, Wes, and I sent e-mails, made various arrangements, and met at the site.  Sometimes there were only two of us, sometimes only one.  We didn’t always know what we were doing and sometimes the only plan we had was to keep going.

One Sunday morning, JP and I borrowed a rototiller from a member of Alleycat Acres, the urban farming organization with whom we had all volunteered.  After getting a quick demonstration on how to use it, we roared it up and began churning.  Soon the sky darkened and rain started dumping.  Mud flung up onto our pants; our shoes were no longer recognizable beneath the gloopy dirt.  At one point, a man in a truck stopped and asked if he could buy our services.  When I told him that we did this for fun, that we weren’t professionals, he looked at us like a math problem.  The rototiller, the untamed beast, took much energy out of us.  We removed our jackets just to cool off despite getting more and more drenched.  With our hair dripping, our bodies soaked, we both laughed and agreed that this was fun.

Soon the lot started to look more intentional and less abandoned.  Neighbors walked by, smiling, telling us how wonderful it was to see people doing something with the place.  One neighbor mentioned how the corner had been an eyesore in an otherwise well-gardened neighborhood.  Another neighbor allowed us the use of her tools whenever we wanted, stopping to talk about what she was doing in her own yard.

Last week, JP and Wes trucked in some donated Groco compost.  On the following Sunday, JP blazed through the soil with the rototiller, mixing the organic material at lightning-fast speed.  Afterward, the three of us, and later another man, created an edge using burlap coffee sacks from a nearby Stumptown and recycled concrete from a former driveway.

Wes has been getting offers from more people who are interested in obtaining a bed.  While we’ve been clearing and building on a spot that is about 24 feet by 10 feet, there is still much more land available.  As more neighbors turn out, the larger the garden will become.

For now, we have three beds.  Today JP planted the first vegetable, a tomato, followed by zucchini and more tomatoes.  Now that we have begun putting food into the ground, we’ve already started discussing the harvest party.  Zucchini bread, anyone?