During a recent trip to Bill Vega’s nursery in Seffner, I was amazed — again. Never had I seen so many fruits and vegetables growing on a quarter of an acre and all so obviously thriving and producing. Every turn brought another surprise.
Bill is a board member of the Tampa Rare Fruit Council International. Many of his plants will be sold Oct. 12-13 at the USF Fall Plant Sale. He has sugar apples, soursops, papayas, passion vine starts, banana plants and vegetable plants in season, to name a few. He sells some from home. Call ahead at (813) 300-7597 to be sure he’s there.
I’ve been a council member since 1988, but Bill has several plants I’ve never heard of, such as the yam vine. He eats the roots and says they’re better than potatoes. His father had a banana farm in Puerto Rico, and he was helping soon after he could walk.
He has a passion vine that has climbed and completely covered an old oak tree. It’s already had three crops this year and yields yearly up to 6,000 fruits, each a bit larger than a golf ball. Bill doesn’t try to climb the tree to get the fruit but waits until it drops to the ground. Then he freezes some whole and makes juice. They’re the only fruits he sells on a regular basis.
I didn’t see any weeds. All of his vines produce something good: chayotes, calabaza pumpkins or yams.
Many of his plants, even trees, are in pots, especially the ones he needs to move into his shade house, which becomes a greenhouse in the winter. Some of the hardy ones are in the ground.
He has Florida varieties of peaches and nectarines and prunes them three times a year, grabbing a bunch of stems about a foot from their tips and cutting back to the top of his hand. This doubles the new growth each time, but he stops in December so they can set fruit. He doesn’t spray them.
He feeds his plants with 10-10-10 or a 4-6-8 citrus fertilizer and composted horse manure.
Rain barrels, both round and square, collect 1,000 gallons of water, and he has all of them connected to his irrigation system.
Best of all is his enthusiasm. Retired from United Airlines, he enjoys working in his nursery almost every day, maybe only three or four hours in the summer, six or seven in the winter. It keeps him young.
Today’s pick is the pineapple. You can start them from plants or from the tops of pineapples you get at the grocery store. Plant them 12 to 18 inches apart for a start.
Once you have them, you’ll have them forever. They’ll grow in sun or partial shade but fruit more quickly in sun, as soon as 15 to 30 months. By the time one plant produces its only fruit, several side shoots will have developed.
I’ve found that those with smooth leaf margins taste as good as the thorny ones, but you still don’t want to back into the plant’s pointy leaves. If they get too close to your path, you can cut the leaves back. I have more than a dozen ripening right now.
For bigger fruits, pour fertilizer solution in the center of the rosette of leaves. Cut them before any wildlife decides they’re ready, when there is just a bit of yellow on the skin. They’ll keep in the kitchen for two weeks.
Now’s the time to tell you that Bill Vega has much of his backyard mulched with old carpets with the bottom side up. The Rare Fruit Council group once visited a place where a man mulched many acres that way, and I tried it. It works well if you’re growing in pots or definite rows, but you sure can’t dig a hole through it. It controls weeds well but you still have to weed around the edges. Bill Vega seems to have all that in control since he spends so much time in his garden.
He makes juice from many of his passion fruits, both the frozen and ripe fresh ones. He cuts them in half, spoons out the pulp and puts it in a jug with three parts water to one part pulp. After two days he strains the pulp out and the rest is juice.
You also can use a blender for just a minute to loosen the seeds and strain it at once. Add sugar to taste and keep in the refrigerator. Passion fruit is the basis of Hawaiian Punch and many other commercial fruit drinks. Passion vines are a host plant for at least three kinds of butterflies and the flowers are beautiful. They also can be invasive.
The Tampa Bay Orchid Society will meet Thursday at Christ The King Catholic Church, McLaughlin Center, 821 S. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Louis Del Favero will discuss how to grow bare-root orchids.
Doors open at 6 p.m. and the meeting starts at 6:30. Refreshments will be provided by members. There will be plants for sale and a plant raffle, plus a bloom table where experts will discuss each plant. The meeting is open to the public.
For more information and directions, visit www.tampabayorchidsociety.shutterfly.com or call (813) 839-4959.
Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, author of 11 gardening books and freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected] Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.