To chilly Northerners, a fruit tree in the back yard has always been part of the Florida dream; paradise means waking up in winter and plucking your own golden oranges and sunny grapefruits. But it wasn't until 1999, when we bought our cottage on the south end of Siesta Key, that I began planting-and harvesting-my own backyard Florida garden.
George and I had just moved in together, and I was entranced by his West Indian heritage, eager to learn more about everything from the music to the food. And we had just returned from visiting his mother in St. Lucia, where I had been dazzled by the tropical abundance-millions of mangoes hanging from the heavens, magnificent breadfruit trees, banana plants stretching to infinity, almond trees growing wild on the beach.
I decided to create our own tropical paradise on our 50-foot lot. In September we moved in; and by the time Y2K arrived-remember all those predictions of global disaster?-we had planted so many trees we were boasting that with fruit and freshly smoked mullet, we could live off the land come the apocalypse. (We had to revise that when my son, Matt, home from college on Christmas break, netted a mullet and plopped it down, still gasping, on the gas grill; we discovered the charred, gooey remains hours later and decided we'd leave the smoking to Walt's.)
We planted three baby coconuts along the bay, and a pomelo, bananas and a soursop (ultra-tropical, with a large, spiny green fruit that yields a milky, tangy juice) in the back. In our narrow side yard, we put in papayas, a tangerine and peach tree; and we filled up the front with an avocado, mango, Key lime, Meyer's lemon, carambola, miniature Temple orange, calamondin, navel orange, grapefruit and pomegranate.
By spring, our little trees were already blooming, and I spent hours outside, transfixed by the magical transformation from tiny white flower to miniature green knoblet to full-fledged baby fruit.
George, like any practical West Indian, had little use for my rhapsodies about nature's mysteries. In that hardworking culture, even the pets have jobs. Dogs are expected to stand guard in the yard, and before George came to this country, the thought of a dog lolling around inside or, worse yet, jumping into bed with its owners, had never crossed his mind. Trees have jobs to do, too, and woe betide any shirkers.
When his 78-year-old mother came for a visit, she looked at a four-foot-tall papaya that had just produced a spray of pretty white flowers, and frowned. "Male," she sniffed. The flowers, it seems, are the sign of a male and therefore sterile tree; the flowerless female produces the fruit. While I was admiring the snowy petals, she strode over and yanked the papaya right out of the ground.
I learned a lot about gardening that first year. I learned that herbs and vegetables do better in pots than in our sandy soil. I learned that faithful hand-watering every night couldn't keep the tangerine tree from withering in the August heat, and that even a small Florida yard needs an irrigation system. I had vowed not to use any pesticides, but the first time I saw pasty-white worms inching their way up the fuzzy green stalks of my tomato plants, I ran out and bought poison.
And I learned that all the enthusiasm in the world can't withstand nature's indifferent imperatives: We had to take out the pomelo and the peach when the new megahome next door blocked their light, and that poor soursop shivers through much of the year, struggling to produce a few seed pods and then losing every one-along with all its leaves-then winter arrives.
But most of all, I learned about a whole new world of flavors. The megahome robs sun from the Meyer's lemon tree, too, so it's scraggly and sickly-looking, but the valiant little guy gives us half a dozen big lemons every winter. Each one is precious; thin-skinned and sweeter than other lemons, Meyers are too fragile to ship, so you have to grow your own or find a local source. Last year I preserved four of our annual six-basically, you pickle them in salted lemon juice-and used them for months in easy, exotic-tasting Moroccan stews.
We're already on our second generation of papaya trees-the first ones grew too high to harvest even with a ladder, so we cut them down and grew new ones from seeds. We eat the papayas for breakfast (they're great for digestion) or make sweet papaya bread. Sometimes I'll cut up the hard, unripe green ones and throw them into a curry. And as with all our fruit, their juice and pulp make killer tropical drinks spiked with St. Lucian rum.
But the best is the salsa we serve in the summer when we smoke fish (we finally bought a proper smoker, though without Matt to cast the mullet nets, we usually default to salmon). We dice papayas and our heavenly Carrie mangos with some red onion, then add homegrown hot red peppers, cilantro and a squirt of Key lime juice.
We blend the star-shaped fruits of the carambola into juice or slice them into crunchy garnishes. And the bananas! Small and extra-sweet, they're wonderful plain or in smoothies-but I love them at what George calls the "green fig" stage, just before they're ripe. Boiled and mashed with salt, pepper and butter, they make a chunky, earthy dish that outshines any gussied-up, garlic-roasted Yukon Golds I've ever tasted.
Just a few feet tall when we planted them, the coconuts now stand two stories high with glorious green fronds that fill the sky. George can open one of their nuts with a machete in nothing flat; we like to harvest them when they're still green, so we can spoon out the sweet jelly before it hardens into white meat, then drink the coconut water-cool, light and refreshing-right out of the shell. Talk about a taste of the tropics!
The only tree that's disappointed us is the navel orange; it's big and healthy-looking, with glossy, dark green leaves, but it only produces a few dry oranges a year. Maybe it needs a little more time. Meanwhile, the neighbor's navels are outstanding, huge and sweet and bursting with juice, and the tree grows over the back fence. We bought a long-handled fruit picker and enjoy oranges all winter long. In Florida, somehow or other, the back yard always provides.