By JOYCE COMINGORE
Special to The Breeze
Friday, September 23, was the big kick-off day of fall. It's nice to have a specific date, because it is hard to tell in "Paradise." I also know because my television programs, my social organizations and schools have started up anew. "Up north" leaves would be turning colors and falling, brisk winds blowing cool air, my favorite time of year. Before air pollution laws, the air would be full of smoke from burning leaves. This would be harvest time, with the bird migrations. The growing season had come to a close.
Now, in our upside down gardening world of Southwest Florida, it is our beginning time. Replenish the soil, plant seeds and get ready, get set, grow! The rainy season gives us a great start. Things are now lush and growing. Mowing is a weekly deal. Summer's heat is decomposing our spring mulching. Cooler weather is coming-it's on its way.
Be sure to mulch after planting because mulch will last longer in the cool weather. The dry season will be upon us soon, so it holds the moisture in the ground, around the plants' roots.
Soon cool nights and warm days will promote good blooming, helping vegetables to set up their produce. When the evening temperature drops, tomatoes are ready to plant from seeds sown in mid to late September. What fun to have a few plants tucked in here or there. Get an earlier start with potted plants planted in at least six hours of sunlight. "The number of days quoted on seed packs can be reduced by about 30% in Southwest Florida," said Mike Gill of Driftwood Gardens. Which brings me to determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.
The growth habits of indeterminate tomatoes keeps them growing and producing over a long season, and they need support from stakes or cages. Their vine pattern has three or four leaves, then a cluster of flowers or fruit. Determinate tomatoes are small and bushy, with a short season life. Seldom are they more than 5 to 6 feet tall, with their vine distinguished by a repeating pattern of two leaves followed by a flower or fruiting cluster. When they reach maturity, they stop growing and produce fruit. They need successive plantings, so you can change varieties in January, if you like.
Disease resistance is another matter to look into. It is the ability of a plant to withstand disease attacks bred into that particular variety. Listed by initials on seed packets and labels, the resistance breed into seeds are: V-verticillium wilt; F-fusarium wilt; N-nematode; T-tobacco mosaic virus; A-alternaria alternata (crown wilt disease); L-septoria leafspot; LB-late blight. Heirloom tomatoes are fun because they were mostly bred before 1940 for flavor or growing conditions like short summers or disease resistance. Just because it is an heirloom, doesn't mean they are always delicious, but pretty close.
I was visiting the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council's Botanical Garden last weekend and was impressed by the ripe pomegranates in the rare fruit section. I love pomegranates, but didn't realize the big fullsize ones would grow here. I had several miniature pomegranate plants that did well, as long as I kept them watered. The first one I planted near my front entryway walk and the thorns took their toll. The next one I kept in a pot that lasted for several years because I did remember to water. Years ago in the horticulture class I took at vo-tech, I did my ending thesis on pomegranates and grew some seeds from one I ate. I didn't keep mine alive because I forget to water potted plants, but I hoped the three I donated to their greenhouse survived. I am aware that trees grown from seed never produce true to the fruit you eat, but it might come close.
Pomegranates are native to southeastern Europe and Asia. You find them mentioned in the Bible, so you know they were grown in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, also in Iran and India. Missionaries took them into Mexico and California in the 16th century. Their scientific name is Punica granatum L in the Punicaeae family. They like to grow in tropical and warm temperate climates, but do best in cool winters and hot dry summers. Our summers are not dry, so a big let down there. However the tree in the council's garden has survived well for three years now. A small commercial industry did survive in Florida during the 1800s. Pomegranates like deep heavy loam soil, but will adapt to sandy or clay soils. They don't do well in alkaline soils, needing a 5.5 to 7 range of ph.
With their glossy dark green oblong leaves and flaming orange blooms, they make an attractive ornamental. I love to crunch on their seeds in salads and scooped straight from the rind. Self-pollinating, they drop their fruits for the first three to five years, or when over-watered or over-fertilized. They are tolerant of a little flooding. The plant tends to produce a bushy effect, so it needs to be trained into a tree. Remove all suckers around the main trunk you have chosen. Thereafter, light annual pruning produces good quality fruit and remove all suckers at the base. Pomegranate trees need at least three sprayings of neutral copper fungicide a year, and sulfur dust early in June helps control mites.
The best way to propagate is not from seeds, but take a 6 to 8-inch winter hardwood cutting in February or March, at least pencil thick, and lay it vertically in soil with the top node showing. Keep it moist and it can be kept this way at least two years. Air layering works also.
The wonderful thing about fruit trees is, they give us nourishment as well as taking out the bad air and giving us oxygen. Thank a plant.
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, director on the national board of directors for the American Hibiscus Society, a board member of the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.