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Growing Tropical Trees in a Not-So-Tropical Zone

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

Our young papaya tree didn't lose its blooms in the freeze two weeks ago

Our central Florida homestead is far enough inland from the warmer coast that we get lots of cold weather (for Florida). We’ve had plenty of freezing temps and frost this winter, dipping into the mid 20’s F (-7 °C), and local nurseries tell us it is too cold for most tropical plants to survive or yield fruit. It gets cold enough here to supposedly grow several varieties of apples and peaches, for which I’m tickled. We’re going to give them a try.

The early settlers planted mostly what grew well, so why shouldn’t we just settle for that? We have a few daughters born in tropical Liberia, and the rest of us are lovers of some very tropical fruits as well. If we are serious about living sustainably off the land, we should consider raising anything we want to have access to long term, for health reasons or otherwise.

That is why last fall, when growers were selling off their summer inventory at reduced prices, we purchased a few banana, avocado, mango, papaya, and moringa trees. We also bought various citrus trees which are more cold hardy, and a Florida variety of peach (Tropic Snow), which actually needs enough hours of cold to reproduce (no problem here). So far these little trees have seen freezing overnight temps numerous times, including the last week of March, and are doing great. All the trees have new growth and several have blooms and the beginnings of fruit. How have we done it?

Here are the ideas we have used so far when the temps drop too low overnight:

1) Purchase only dwarf varieties or trees that can be pruned to stay short. This way they can more easily be protected.

2) Place permanent or temporary supports over them, like a ladder, trellis, tee-pee or wire frame which can support a cover.

3) Cover with old sheets (from thrift stores) or other covers overnight. Try to keep the cover from touching the foliage if possible, for further protection against frostbite.  Use clothes pins to close the covers around the trees, and keep them from flapping if there is a breeze.

4) Place candles in glass underneath each tree and its cover.  Christmas lights also work but are not sustainable and less convenient if you must run lots of cords or if you’re off the grid like we are.  At first we placed whatever candles we had on hand into jars.  Then we found 8″ tall candles at Dollar General for $1.50 each, and placed them in small holes under each tree so they could not fall over.  We also found oil lamp chimneys at thrift stores to place over them for added safety.  For my protection I must add that you should never leave such candles unattended.  Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone  

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

The ladder is ready for the night's predicted freeze. It will support a large sheet covering these trees and plants with a candle underneath.

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

Candles and chimneys are placed under the trees.

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

That night the yard is decorated with "ghosts"

5) Light a fire to produce lots of hot coals in a burn barrel so the heat radiates up to 75 feet around it.   Obviously this works only away from town and by taking proper precautions.  After the flames die down we place wire fencing over the hole with a metal trashcan lid on top.  This allows ventilation around the perimeter of the lid while keeping the coals hot longer.  We’ve raised the temp in our yard 10 degrees this way. The biggest drawback is more wood must be added every three or four hours till sunrise.  And again, follow fire safety rules.  Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

This potted dwarf (Cavendish) banana tree will be planted in the ground on the south side of a wall

6) Water well everything in danger of freeze or frostbite early in the morning before the sun rises.

7) Try to place trees next to buildings, preferably on the south side, or in protected corners. This can make a big difference.

One of our most cold sensitive trees are moringas, native to India, which produce an awesome green super food. Its leaves, pods, and even branches are edible, and super high in protein, vitamin C, and other nutrients. They are a soft tree that will grow 30 feet a year, or you can keep it pruned to nine feet for easy harvesting. They are terribly cold sensitive and will drop their leaves or die back and must start over again if they get too cold. Since our moringas are virtually unprotected in the middle of our front yard, they tend to get “babied” the most. They are still small enough that a six foot ladder can be used to support a cover till we make something more permanent.

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

One of our moringas with a ladder over it, ready to be covered with the sheet above in the predicted freeze that night

Our papaya trees and dwarf mango tree (Nam DocMai) are still in large pots, waiting to be planted permanently in the ground inside the greenhouse when it is finished. For now they are grouped together against the front of the house and easily covered with one large sheet with a candle under it. Mango and papaya trees may survive temps dipping below freezing, but their fruit won’t.

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

The reddish leaves on the top of the mango tree are tender new growth from the past month in spite of several frosty nights.

We purchased the most cold hardy avocado variety we could find (Lila), and use a large 8’ tomato cage to support blankets to keep it warm since it is in an unprotected north corner of our yard. It has thrived this winter and is growing tiny avocados, as well as new blooms. When it grows into a large tree with thick foliage it will better tolerate dips below freezing without being covered.

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

The avocado is ready to be covered with the blanketed cage in the background, and warmed by the candle below.

As the winter wore on we got wiser in protecting our trees. At first we covered the tender young citrus trees with sheets on cold nights but used no supports. One night it got too cold and the top leaves got burned. Since then we made sure to use supports when needed, even if it was just a shovel or pitchfork stuck in the ground beside the tree to keep the sheet off the top of it.

Then we learned the trick of using water to protect the trees. The citrus and some of our garden veggies do fine with a good watering during the coldest hour of the morning, which for us is around 6am (before the time change it was 5am). The other week when it dipped below freezing and covered everything with frost we didn’t even cover our young citrus trees. At 6am Silver Oak found the hose nozzle frozen shut. He removed it and watered everything thoroughly, immediately raising the temperature. We don’t totally understand how this works, but it must be done before sunrise, and is effective when temps aren’t below freezing more than several hours.

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

The tender new growth on this Valencia orange tree did not get burned by the frost

We dream of growing coconut trees and producing our very own coconut oil. We are preparing an area on the south side of our greenhouse for dwarf coconut trees. When they mature we hope to keep them warm enough through irrigation and a burn barrel or wood stove in the center of the grove. It’s worth a try!

Do you live in a warmer climate with possibilities of growing tropical trees? I’d love to hear how you’ve managed or what your dreams are.


Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

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Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

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20 Responses to “Growing Tropical Trees in a Not-So-Tropical Zone”

  1. Cat says:

    I live in Idaho, so can’t give advice on tropical plants. But thought this was interesting and would share about avocados. I don’t know what species these are, but in my area several people have mature avocado trees that they have had for 30+ years that successfully bear fruit every year. In the winter we often have high temps that never get above freezing for 1-2 months straight and often have lows below zero. The avocado trees lose their leaves in the winter, but every spring regrow their leaves and end up bearing lots of fruit. Don’t know what type they are, but there are species out there, maybe a type of heirloom, that can handle the cold temps.

  2. Michelle says:

    We currently live in Las Vegas. We have hot summers, and mild to pretty cold winters. I see a lot of my neighbors draping burlap material around their cold sensitive cactus in the winter.

    I have also met a woman here who keeps all sorts of tropical fruit trees in a green house. Will you or do you have a green house?

    You know I just read an article about keeping rabbits in cages over compost piles, so the heat would rise and keep them warm. I wonder if you kept some compost piles near your plants if there heat would help them? Maybe the piles would attract bugs that would eat your plants…Humm Not so sure how that would work….

    Only 2 months left till we move to our off the grid house in northern Florida, so I am constantly thinking about what we will be able to hopefully grow there. I think our winters will be like yours, and we will have very sandy soil. I am hoping to find a cold hardy variety of bamboo to grow there, so we can use it around our fence line for added privacy.

    I dream of avocados, lemons, oranges, and grapefruit.

    I love that you are trying all these tropical plants! I hope they all grow and produce lots of fruits for you! Thanks for posting your tips for keeping them warm.

    • Rose Petal says:

      We are currenty building a greenhouse where we hope to plant some dwarf tropical trees and grow veggies in the ground. I’m sure the compost pile idea would work if we could figure out how to get it close enough to all the trees. :)

      I’m excited about your move. A large timber bamboo that is cold hardy is called old hamii. We hope to get some soon as well. Hope your dream of growing tropical trees comes true! Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. michelle says:

    We have a Orange tree that I have on wheels. So we can wheel it out in warm weather and keep it inside on cold days. Even if we covered it and left it out side. It would die in this area.

  4. kendra says:

    Hubby has a few trees that cannot stand the cold (ohio), they are not fruit bearing but still cool. Every fall we prune them way back and store them in the garage. It seems to work, but his goal is to get a green house and plant all sorts of tropical trees in it. We drove to the Keys for a nice warm vacation this January and I must admit I loved all the different palm trees.

    • Rose Petal says:

      That sounds like a neat greenhouse idea. We hope to do something similar when ours is done. Nexxt time you come to FL you’ll have to look us up! :)

  5. This is really interesting. We have thought about planting banana trees a few times but always let the idea go thinking they wouldn’t do well here. Your post makes me want to research it for our area see. I figure if you guys can make it happen with freezing temps, we probably can too!

    Thanks for sharing at the Farm Girl Blog Fest!
    Kristi @Let This Mind Be in You

  6. Rebecca says:

    We live in middle Georgia and have wanted to grow some citrus but we weren’t sure how it would do. Thanks for the tips. We might get braver and try some.

    • Rose Petal says:

      I’m sure you get freezing temps much more than we do. But if you’re really serious about it you may pull it off. Let me know how it goes if/when you try!

  7. Lisa Lynn says:

    Oh, I would love to grow these fruits :) I could only do this indoors in N. Illinois! Thank you so much for sharing this on The Creative HomeAcre Hop! I hope to see you again tomorrow. :)

  8. Lisa Lynn says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this on Wildcrafting Wednesday! I hope you will join us again today!

  9. Lisa Lynn says:

    Thanks for sharing this on the HomeAcre Hop, Rose Petal!

  10. Capt Rick Guest says:

    I’m a SFla native. I collected and raised rare fruit trees from the Bahamas and Caribbean. I moved to Ohio on Lake Erie 17 yrs ago. I have successfully raised 3 very healthy Chermollas, and 3 very healthy Calomondons in containers. Brought them into basement after 1st freeze every year under 4 plant lights. The calomondin blooms in the basement and I hand pollinate it w/ a fine paint brush. It gives me 30-40 fruits every year. The Chermoyas grew very fast up here and I took them to my son in WPBch. Thought this may be of interest to you

    • Rose Petal says:

      Wow, that is impressive! It seems amazing you get that much fruit out of a tree small enough to move around like that. Thanks so much for sharing!