A papaya orchard is not out of the question

By John A. Starnes Jr., Special to the Times
Published December 1, 2007

Q: How can I propagate papaya seeds? I'd love to grow some in my back yard.

A: Nothing is easier than growing papayas from seeds. Just scrape the dark seeds from a fully ripe papaya whose flavor you like onto some good soil in a pot. Cover the seeds with half an inch of soil, and keep them slightly damp in full sun. In a few weeks you will have plenty of seedlings.

When they are about 6 inches tall, set quite a few of them in the sunniest areas of your yard and water them by hand a few times a week until they are settled in. Plant more than you want, because many of them may turn out to be males; male plants have long, slender flower stems that will never set fruit. Cut those plants down and leave the bisexual and female varieties, which produce a stout, tuliplike flower right on the main trunk of the papaya. Those are the papaya plants that will bear you fruit.

Drastic palm trimming

Q: Every November our homeowners association hires tree trimmers to cut back all the queen palm trees. Beautiful fronds are cut off, and only a small spike is left at the top of the tree. Why would these healthy fronds be hacked away?

A: Some tree trimmers give palms that "hurricane haircut" during the summer too, but it strikes me as an excessive 'do. The fronds not only nourish and support the palm year-round, they can protect the core inner shoots during a frost or freeze. Only the dangling, brown fronds need to be removed.

Grass that grows fast

Q: How can I get grass seed to grow in a hurry?

A: Now that the cooler months are here, you can sow winter rye grass, which will give you some coverage until the heat returns.

Dropping ficus leaves

Q: We have two potted ficus trees, one in the back yard, one on a screened patio. Both are afflicted with some kind of insect that causes the leaves to fold in half, wither, yellow and fall off. Pesticides don't help.

A: It's hard to help without knowing what the insects are: aphids? scale? mealy bugs? Well-fed ficus trees are seldom attacked by insects.

The soluble chemical plant foods that you may have been using may lack crucial trace elements and can be high in soluble salts. Try feeding the ficuses diluted fish emulsion monthly for a few months, say 3 tablespoons in a gallon of water. Water deeply but infrequently.

Less fussy petunias?

Q: You recently suggested that growing petunias successfully involves composting, adding dolomite and manure, and nourishing plant beds with cat litter and dog food, topped with flattened cardboard. This is just not going to happen. I work full time and have a bad back. What's the next-best solution? What could I buy easily at a garden center that would give plants their best chance? Also, can you recommend a good gardening Web site?

A: Feed the soil in your petunia beds with diluted fish emulsion from a garden center, 3 tablespoons per gallon of water, and lightly sprinkle a tablespoon or so of dolomitic limestone around each one after planting. Petunias dislike highly acidic soil.

Mulching their bed with 1 or 2 inches of a good mulch, such as the chipped mulch from a tree-trimming company, helps keep their soil moist and cool in the full sun they best thrive in. A really good plant Web site for Florida gardeners is www.floridata.com.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.