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Food & Dining

Grow Your Own Just Desserts In Your Tampa Bay Area Yard

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: May 20, 2013 at 03:41 AM

Forget Red Delicious apples - up to $2 a pound at the supermarket, not to mention the Sasquatch-sized carbon footprints they leave just getting there.

How about a sweet starfruit instead? Or a juicy longan? Plucked from your own backyard.

You may not find an apple growing in the Tampa Bay area, but we're a prime location for lots of other fruit trees, say Jim and Sally Lee, who have dozens on their Thonotosassa property, Lee's Vineyard.

"You can grow tropical, like south of us, as well as cold-hardy," Jim says. "If you live in Sarasota, you can't do that."

To enrich their sandy soil, the couple dumped a load of horse manure in it about six years ago. It worked wonders; they never even fertilize.

Before you plant a fruit tree, Sally suggests tasting the fruit - the specific variety - to make sure you like it.

Persimmons, for instance.

"There are many varieties," she says. "Some are astringent, some are nonastringent; some are very sweet, some are not as sweet."

The astringent persimmons are generally sweeter and juicier than the nonastringents, but they don't get that way till they're fully ripe and soft. Nonastringent varieties can be eaten when firm.

The Lees are members of the Tampa Bay Chapter of the Rare Fruit Council International, a club whose members are more than happy to help newbies. They meet at 2 p.m. the second Sunday of each month at the Tampa Garden Club, 2629 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa. Go hungry - members always bring samples of their bounty. There also are plant exchanges, seed giveaways and goodies to buy.

Or, pay a visit to Lee's Vineyard, which offers u-pick grapes, persimmons, avocadoes and seasonal fruits. Call ahead to see what's growing - (813) 335-1865.

Persimmons

$1.50 each in the supermarket

A popular variety grown locally is Tanenashi, a sweet, astringent persimmon (it's not ready to eat till it's soft.) Slice it in half and scoop out the pulpy flesh with a spoon.

The trees like full sun and are cold-hardy. Once established, they tend to be very low maintenance. They produce fruit from September into November.

Carambola (Star Fruit )

$2 each in the supermarket

About 6 inches long with a waxy skin, star fruit can be sweet to bland to tart (so know what you're getting - these trees produce lots of fruit nearly year-round.) A good, sweet cultivar that originated in Florida is Arkin. Jim likes Sri Kembanqan.

Grafted trees may start producing in a year, while trees grown from seed will take a few years to mature. They're cold-sensitive, Jim says, so if the temperature's supposed to drop, keep the trunk warm by wrapping it in Christmas lights. (And, of course, turn them on.)

Pomelo

$2 per pound in the supermarket - weighs 3 or more pounds

The parent of the grapefruit, Jim says, is this Chinese staple, about the size of a volleyball. It's sweet but not as juicy as an orange or grapefruit. Besides flavor, the pomelo's great advantage is staying power. Two months after it's picked, it's still fresh and tasty. In Asia, the peel is even more valuable than the fruit; it's preserved in soy sauce and cooked with meats.

Grow it like any other citrus, Jim says. It can take the cold, and can tolerate more water than other citrus trees. Let the fruit sit at least two weeks before eating.

Longan

Good luck finding it in the supermarket

Sweet and juicy, longans are the size of large marbles, with a brittle skin that's easily broken off. Inside, the fruit is translucent; it looks like an eyeball (grow some for your next Halloween party maybe?) The fruit is very popular in China, Jim says. The tree grows in sun or shade, likes water, and can get quite large - about the size of an oak. Some varieties fruit in late July and August, others in October.

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