Fish Branch Tree Farm palms Royal Palm Chapter

Fish Branch

John Conroy, owner of Fish Branch Tree Farm, was generous with his time and gave me an educational tour of his 300 acres of beautiful tree production. I was impressed by the cleanliness, the quality, and the quantity of trees produced here in the south-center of the state.

(Sorry I did not share any photos of their tens of thousands of young ‘Boardwalk’ Live Oaks, all standing up straight with their consistent central leaders. And their progressive planting and harvesting intervals where they produce 500 acres worth of trees in a 300 acre farm. Visit their website for pictures of their ‘Densa’ Slash Pines. This long-needled pine has a superior form with thick trunk caliper and lower, wider branching than our scrawny native tree.)

The highlight of my visit was seeing the preharvest cleaning procedure of one Sylvester palm. The worker was just tidying up with a broom when we arrived. It takes this craftsman about an hour to cut off the base of each frond, at a slightly sloping angle away from the trunk, careful to leave the trunk intact.

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Florida Fruit pomegranate

Pomegranate Paradise

It’s a beautiful, fruitful day at Green Sea Farms in Zolfo Springs, Florida. Thanks to the owners, David and Cindy Weinstein, and the Florida Pomegranate Association for the luscious field day, Saturday, June 23rd.

Despite typical wet summer conditions we were able to enjoy educational talks about insects, diseases, fertility, irrigation, and the panoply of different pomegranates that can be grown in Central Florida. The highlight of the day was the walking, talking tour of the grove of over 120 varieties of this anti-oxidant fruit.


container gardening florida gardening Gardening tomato tomatoes vegetables

Growing Tomatoes in Zones 9 and 10

My first vegetable garden in South Florida was a crop failure. I thought I had a green thumb because I was able to grow many productive gardens from scratch in Michigan and Illinois. But there was the root of my mistake- I planted as I had done up north, in the spring.

30 years ago I learned that timing is one dramatic difference that must be obeyed. Plan in September, plant in October, harvest from Thanksgiving ’till Christmas. And if time and space and weather allows, plant again in January to hurry up and harvest before the heat of April and the rotting rains of May.

I have started dozens of gardens in Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Naples, and Fort Myers. Here are the few things I do to assure a bumper crop of delicious tomatoes every year.

  1. Start plants from seed. Because I love the full, complex flavor of heirlooms, they are all tomato seedlings (1)available from seed but rarely do you find starter plants in garden centers. I use Fafard growing mix in 4″ pots. (Typical germination mix is too fine and holds too much water.) There are small bags of “complete” available only at independent garden centers and large bags (3 cubic feet) of #3. These media (no soil, only lightweight, clean ingredients of peat, vermiculite, perlite, and pine bark) give the ideal ratio of water retention and drainage. I plant two seeds per pot and grow them in full, direct sunlight. This makes for a shorter seedling with thick stems.
  2. Poor soil is our curse. In South Florida we have great growing conditions: Warm Garden 2temperatures, sunny days, and some rainfall but typical, urban soil is fill dirt composed of sand/rocks/shell. The pH is very high (nearly 8) and often it is teaming with nematodes: microscopic eel worms that attack tomato roots. Improve your soil with liberal applications of organic matter. I have used bulk compost from a local vegetation recycling yard and bulk potting soil by the yard. Canadian peat moss is another excellent additive to help hold water and help make the soil slightly acid.
  3. There is no nematicide that “nukes” the soil for us home owners. Root Guard is a Florida made product composed of crab shells that is incorporated in the soil pre-plant that can help keep the numbers of nematodes down. Solarizing with clear plastic can help. Growing the nematicidal marigold as a cover crop during summer can help too. The best pre-plant treatment I’ve used is combining Zerotol and Azaguard as a drench. Repeat twice.
  4. Incorporate fertilizer before planting.  Let’s not argue about organic versus chemical fertilizers. It is your personal preference. I have used both with equal results but because we have poor soils and a heavy-feeding crop I incorporate a complete organic fertilizer at planting, then supplement with liquid feed monthly. I used to buy 50# bags of greensand, bone meal, and composted turkey manure and layer it on before rototilling. Now I use Mighty Grow Organic 4-3-4 with great results.
  5. Insects are a minor problem and most of them can be prevented with Neem. Just don’t spray in the heat of a 90 degree day, you could burn the leaves. Morning is the safest time to spray. Hornworms and fruitworms are controlled with Thuricide or Conserve.
  6. Fungal disease is the major problem. High temperatures and high humidity encourage the growth of leaf-attacking fungi. Prevent by spraying with Garden Friendly Fungicide, and/or Dithane. Commercial growers choose varieties that are resistant to nematodes, fungi, bacterium, and viruses. Seed catalogs give you those options too but I have found some of them lacking in taste. I’d rather battle the elements for a succulent “Marvel Stripe” than a hard, red orb you find in the store.
  7. Stake them up. Typical tomato plants are vines that, if allowed to crawl along the ground, will decay. By forcing them up a stake you will get more clean fruit per square foot and less disease problems.
  8. Why not a pot? Excellent idea because then you have complete control over the quality of soil and quantity of water. I use Fafard #52 in large pots for its excellent drainage. A trade “seven gallon squat” pot is 14″ in diameter and is fine for a single dwarf tomato plant and a “fifteen gallon” pot is 18″ in diameter and is fine for one full sized plant. I planted two ‘Kosovo’ plants in a “25 gallon” pot (24″ in diameter) and they got 8′ high and 10′ wide. There is no need to put anything else in the bottom of the pot. If you put a layer of rocks in the bottom you could actually interfere with drainage. A well-drained growing medium is all you need.  (In the nursery trade we use these gallon sizes loosely and figuratively. A “one gallon” nursery pot looks more like a quart. A “five gallon” is puny compared to a true five gallon bucket.)
Dwarf tomatoes and standard plants in the background.
FNGLA Royal Palm Chapter

Awesome Award

Thank you to FNGLA for this incredible honor.

Bob Wendell Butler
Theresa Riley giving Bob Cook the Wendell E. Butler Award. (On stage with Kevin Riley and the President of the Florida Nursery Grower Landscape Association, Billy Butterfield.)

The Wendell E. Butler Award is recognized as FNGLA’s most prestigious prize. This award recognizes an individual who serves the association and the industry by providing leadership, service, contributions and has shown a sincere interest in the advancement of the association and the industry.

Here is a video they made for the presentation at the annual meeting of 2016.

And my acceptance speech:

First, I thank God for making me a gardener and giving me the passion for plants. I am closest to my Creator when I am on my knees in the dirt.

I thank my wife Cheryl. She tolerates my passion for plants and the trail of compost through the house. She is my encouragement, the woman of my dreams, the answer to my prayers.

We are grateful for our son John. He is often in the trenches with me, learning skilled labor. I don’t expect him to follow in my fertile footsteps but pray that he also finds a career that he loves with people he admires.

My parents get full credit for doing their best by steering me in the right direction. Mom was wise to send me outside to play. My father taught me the benefits of hard work.

Thanks to my previous employers who gave me opportunities, training, and priceless experiences.

I am grateful for my current employer, J.C. Diem of Southern Ag. who took a chance on hiring me 10 years ago. We share the same values of faith, family and service.

I thank the members of the Royal Palm chapter of FNGLA for even considering me as a nominee me for this highest honor.

Speaking of FNGLA, I have read the textbook for the Certified Horticulture Professional at least twenty times from cover to cover over the years. And there is one word that appears only once: Love.

“Knowledge of the product comes with love of the job, study, observation and seasoned experience.”

In another book, first Corinthians it says “If I speak the eloquence of men, but have no love, I become no more than a crashing cymbal…I achieve precisely nothing.”

My desire is not to be famous, to make followers or accumulate friends. When you visit my website and blogs you won’t find a bunch of selfies, but a lot of vivid color photos of beautiful plants.

I hope that my delight in plants is contagious.”